Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sundays with Steve - Arizona Haboobs

Mrs. Steve (Mrs. Jenny to most of you) asked me to answer some of your questions about Arizona weather, which generated considerable national and world-wide news this week, with photos and film clips everywhere.

This massive wall of dust blew into our valley last Tuesday evening about 7 pm, riding 60 mile per hour winds that originated about 100 miles south of the Phoenix metro area where we live.

These dust storms are common in the Southwest, we get three, four, maybe more each summer during what we call the monsoon season. The dust storms are called “haboobs”, which comes from Middle East Arabic for “phenomena”.

Haboobs look more scary than they really are. These are not natural disasters. They are not the destructive tornados or historic floods that have hit our country this year, but they are massive clouds of dirt, moving very fast. They cut visibility down to about zero, they can clog filters, air conditioners, and they can (but not always) make a mess of swimming pools, streets, and landscaping everywhere.

These dust storms originate with powerful thunderstorms that characterize our monsoon season, which is when we get a good portion of our rain in the desert. These thunderstorms build through the heat of the day, and then unleash in late afternoon or evening. The monsoon means a change in wind patterns, and that is when we lose our very dry humidity. We are flooded with humidity that originates in Mexico and the oceans around it. July and August in Arizona is no longer the “dry heat” that we kid about the rest of the year. You can turn on the radio or TV most morning here, and the announcer may say ‘The high today is 115F and rain...’ Another day in paradise.

The haboobs can be dangerous when they lower visibility to near zero, which can cause auto accidents. Their winds can knock down trees and power lines. But generally, the haboobs are precursors to the fun that follows.

We can get tremendous thunder and lightning storms during the monsoon season, usually accompanied by heavy and fierce downpours, rains that can drop an inch of water in 20 or 30 minutes. The downdrafts of these storms create the haboobs, and drive them in front of the rain storms. Typically (not always, and not this week when no rain came) the downpours will wash away the dirt dropped by the haboob. What makes the thunderstorms dangerous is that you can have two or three or four different storms that have been building in the heat all day, that then converge over the same spot, creating a massive shows of lightening, heavy rains, and an orchestra of heavy thunder that can sometimes last hours. These storms clean the air, the streets, the houses, and our lawns, but these storms can also be quite destructive with their heavy lightening and strong winds.

In Arizona, we have what is called the “Stupid Motorist Law” (really, that’s its legal name) which says that if you drive into streets posted with signs that say ‘Do not drive when flooded’ you will be billed for your rescue. That happens numerous times every summer during our monsoon storms that flood our streets for short periods of time.

OK, quickly then, your questions about the haboob that hit us this week:

• It’s dirt picked up from the desert floor, and sometimes from agricultural areas.
• No, it doesn’t smell.
• Yes, it is dirty and it can get into everything if your home is not well sealed.
• The dust is still in the air here, latched on to our humid air. It will last until we get rain, or until the air dries out and humidity recedes in late August. It looks to me that we may get rain in the next couple of hours, and wash all of the left-over dirt and dust away.
• Yes, sometimes the Federal agencies have suggested that we should be able to control the haboobs and the deteriorated air quality they generate. Maybe they think we have a direct line to God with special requests for the weather.
• The haboobs can come in very quickly, this week’s storm was tracked at 60-70 miles per hour. The storm was massive, 60 miles across and five miles high. It blew for about 45 minutes before moving on, another 100 miles to the north of us. It was one of the largest haboobs Arizona has seen in decades.
• This week’s storm was a little spooky, in that we could not see across our street to our neighbor’s home, and the air seemed to be filled with brown fog. It reminded me of the Mount St Helen’s volcanic ash fall-out of the 1980s in the Northwest.

So that’s weather for this week, from our not so small town.

(c) 2010 Stephen J. Matlock
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Unknown said...

I am so glad we don't get these here.

Auntie sezzzzzz... said...

Thank you. This is all news-to-me. Thought Arizona was dry 365 days a year.


Unknown said...

I found this post quite fascinating. I had never heard of a "haboob" until I saw it on a brief news clip between the 24/7 Anthony trial coverage while in a patient's room. It mesmerized me. Something frighteningly beautiful and majestic about the photos I've seen. I don't think I'd want to be in one but desert storms are such a unique entity in and of themselves.

Jeanie said...

The only thing I can relate to these is the dust storms we had when I lived in west Texas. I don't know if they are the same kind of storms, but they were sure a mess to clean up after.

Pondside said...

I've never experienced anything at all like this and imagine it might be quite terrifying the first time. I can only compare it to a blizzard - the sort that makes it impossible to see a foot in front of yourself. Have you begun your clean up? did it do any damage to your house or electronics?

Barbara F. said...

I fell in love with the state of Arizona when I visited for the first time in 2002. It made me sad to hear about this haboob. I have a dream of being a snowbird in Scottsdale one day. xo

Judie said...

When I had to go to TRAFFIC SCHOOL because I supposedly RAN A RED LIGHT at Oracle and River and was caught by the camera put there to inrich the coffers of Tucson, I learned something that a lot of people don't know:

When you are driving and the visability becomes next to nothing, pull off the roadway and TURN YOUR LIGHTS OFF. If you leave them on, a car behind you might decide to follow your tail lights and SLAM INTO YOU, not knowing your are stopped.

Great post, Steve!

Ms. A said...

I find this all quite frightening, especially the lightning part. We seem to be a magnet for lightning, with no haboobs involved!

Anonymous said...

I found this post very interesting Steve. I had heard about the dust storm there but had no idea you all have them often. I really did not know anything about AZ weather and I love learning about other states. Thank you so much for posting this. Hugs

Jo said...

These storms seem so otherworldly to me ... i think something of that magnitude would terrify me ... clearly i need to travel further and experience different terrains and climates ...

Maude Lynn said...

I think my state needs a Stupid Motorist Law!

Slamdunk said...

I am now informed to educate those at the water cooler on haboobs this week.

Thanks Stephen.

People Who Know Me Would Say: said...

I swear, you could be a meteorologist! I loved this post. It expounded upon what I'd heard earlier in the include fun stuff like the "Stupid Motorist Law". Love that!!

Excuse me while I channel my 10-year old self: "Haboob" is a funny name!

Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

Thanks for this great post! I had not taken the time to understand this phenomenon, but when another comes along (and I hope it will be milder) I will feel wise and well-informed.

Moore Minutes said...

As you know, I'm from Arizona and have a lot of family there. This post was VERY interesting. Thank you for it.