Are you Ready for “Another One Bites the Dust?”

Weather Talk

POSTED: Friday, January 31, 2014 - 12:13pm

UPDATED: Friday, January 31, 2014 - 3:46pm

Clouds of Blowing Dust and Sand Are More Common During Our Windy Season and Can Be Hazardous

Let’s talk about probably what is for most of us our least favorite time of year here in the Borderland. I know we are still about month away from the official start of our ‘windy season”, but I thought I would get a jump on the winds and dust with today’s “Weather Talk”. Why? There is a Wind Advisory in effect for the entire Borderland now until 9 P.M.. today as a couple weather systems will produce westerly winds from 15 to 35 mph with peak gusts exceeding 55 mph. These strong winds combined this with no measurable rain since last year, almost 2 months, will create blowing dust. Our skies will get the familiar beige to brownish haze. We commonly see blowing real estate from Arizona and southern New Mexico fly in from our west from mid February sometimes lasting through mid May. I will describe what weather systems typically cause these powerful winds and blowing dust, how they are potentially dangerous, damaging and unhealthy and what other phenomena can produce dangerous blowing dust.

Here in the Borderland we can experience large-scale dust storms that blow across southern New Mexico and western Texas during the late autumn, winter and especially the early spring months. These dust storms usually occur when winds gust over 50 mph blowing a dense tan or brownish clouds of dust and sand into the air. Visibility quickly go down to less than a mile and less than 50 feet in some more vulnerable areas. The clouds of dust most times are lifted thousands of feet above the ground so that even the sun is obscured as the once blue sky turns a tan or an orange brown. Due to the low visibility and high winds, driving becomes very hazardous with collisions and multiple-vehicle pile-ups causing injury and even death across the region. In extreme cases, wind gusts exceeding 70 mph will damage roofs, buildings and overturn high profile vehicles.

Major wind and dust storms are the result of a meteorological disturbance or storm system known as the Lee Cyclone. The lee cyclone is actually a surface low-pressure system, which develops over the high plains just east of the Rocky Mountains. During the development of a lee cyclone, a strong trough of low pressure in the upper levels of the atmosphere or a surface cold front advances west to east across northern portions of Arizona and New Mexico or across Colorado. This storm track will induce strong west to southwesterly winds aloft to blow through the Borderland. While the upper trough or front travels eastward, the surface low intensifies in the vicinity of northeastern New Mexico, southeastern Colorado or the Texas panhandle. In the lower levels, increasing southwesterly flow transports warm dry air at the surface while the approach of the upper trough cools the air aloft, thus creating a dry but unstable atmosphere. These processes can generate windstorms because the strong upper level winds can mix downward, literally lifting the dust and sand at the ground thousands of feet upward. While lee cyclones are causing dust storms here in the borderlands, they are often associated with destructive weather further east. By pulling warm moist unstable air from the Gulf of Mexico northward, lee cyclones can generate severe thunderstorms, which produce hail, high winds, flash floods and even strong and violent tornadoes across northern Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.

During the late autumn, winter and particularly the early spring months of March and April, area residents should listen for the latest weather forecasts and stay alert for the mention of high winds and dust storms. If strong winds and blowing dust and sand are forecasted, people traveling should be prepared for dangerous driving conditions due to very low visibility. Remember during strong winds, blowing dust and sand are especially severe along portions of Interstate 10 between El Paso and Las Cruces and also from near Deming west to Lordsburg. When visibilities become greatly reduced, persons should drive well below normal speed limits or even pull off to the side of the road and stop driving until conditions improve.

The blowing dust is also a health hazard, making breathing difficult for people with chronic lung ailments such as asthma or bronchitis. Individuals with breathing problems should spend little time as possible outdoors during a dust storm and should consider obtaining air-filtering devices for their homes.

These sudden, sometimes massive dust storms are called haboobs (pronounced “huh-boobs”). Haboob comes from the Arabic word haab, which means wind or blow. Haboobs are very strong dust and sand storms that move through hot and dry regions. Although they happen all across the desert southwest, these storms are not unique to America’s Sonoran Desert. They are happen frequently regions such as the Sahara desert, the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa and the Gulf of Guinea. Haboobs are formed When air is forced down and pushed forward by the front of a traveling thunderstorm cell, it pushes and drags with it dust and debris. Winds of speeds of 60 to 80+mph will kick up dust and sand and create a blowing wall 10,000 feet or higher! Haboobs typically last only 10 to 30 minutes, but on rare occasions can last longer and create hazardous conditions for motorists and air traffic. These dry powerful thunderstorms hit Phoenix quite often during the monsoon season causing instant multi car pile ups. These types of dust storms are also possible during the late spring and summer months. When certain conditions exist, thunderstorms may occur which produce little rainfall but very strong winds during the warm season. Under these circumstances, dense blowing dust may develop over localized areas. They can still be dangerous however since dust storms induced by dry thunderstorms will happen very suddenly with little or no warning.

Now we do not have dust associated with every wind maker, especially if we have had a couple weeks where we have seen some rare desert rainfall. The dust storms are something we have to deal with, drive careful in and constantly clean up after. Compared to the icy cold and heavy snows in areas north and east of us, the springtime and summer flooding rains and tornadoes other areas have, I think I will take occasional windy, dusty conditions over those extreme conditions any day? Wouldn't’ you?

Chuck DeBroder, Chief Meteorologist
KTSM, NewsChannel 9, NBC, El Paso, TX Chuck DeBroder NC9 @wxchuckNC9

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