Haboobs: One of Arizona’s most underrated weather hazards

A haboob engulfs Phoenix on July 5, 2011. (Photo Credit: EarthSky.org) 


Haboobs” might make you giggle, but in reality they are more deadly than they are humorous.

With Arizona’s monsoon season less than two months away, meteorologists Ken Drozd and Glenn Lader at the Tucson National Weather Service Office give an in-depth look at these giant dust storms — one of the underrated threats of the monsoon season.

Haboobs are the No. 1 weather-related cause for injuries in Arizona, while ranking third-highest among weather-related fatalities — behind flooding and extreme heat respectively — according to a NOAA Technical Memorandum report on blowing dust and dust storms.

Whether it’s because their name sounds funny, or the mere fact that  desert dwellers treat haboobs as a way of life, the dangers of these massive dust storms during the summertime thunderstorm season far outweigh the danger of being struck by lightning. And yet they don’t receive the recognition for the threat they present.

“We first saw the haboob term used in Arizona in the 70s, which a lot of people don’t realize. For a while people were saying, ‘What are you using this new word for,’ using this Arab term and people were kind of hostile about it, but it’s not new,” said Drozd, warning coordination meteorologist at the Tucson National Weather Service.
A haboob sweeps across the desert and moves into Phoenix, AZ on Aug. 21, 2016. (Video Credit: WeatherNation)

There are two types of dust storms commonly seen in the Arizona desert: The well-known, large scale haboobs, and the lesser known, more deadly channelized dust events. “We have certainly had issues along I-10 recently that have been both haboobs, and channelized events. It has been the channelized events that have actually caused more fatalities than the haboobs have,” said Drozd.

Speaking of the difference between a haboob and a channelized dust event, Drozd said, “In my mind a dust storm is more general in the sense that every haboob is a dust storm, but not every dust storm is a haboob.”

“There is no strict definition for what is a dust storm and what is a haboob,” said Lader, meteorologist with the National Weather Service. “They can be more or less interchangeable. I think of the haboob as the big wall of dust that is not just like the channel events, but it’s a big sprawling thing that could go several thousand feet in the air, maybe 30 miles long. That’s what I think a haboob is in my mind.”

A haboob seen from above moving into Phoenix on Aug. 21, 2016. (Photo Credit: Tyler Herrick)

Southern Arizona is prone to dust storms any time of year when the conditions are right. With a wealth of open desert and dry parched soil, all it takes is a gust of wind strong enough to pick up the dirt and you have yourself a blinding dust storm that can turn a bright sunny Arizona day into a dark nightmare on the Arizona highways. Whether or not that dust storm is technically termed a haboob or a channelized dust event depends on what type of storm creates the wind that picks up the dust.

“The channelized winds is what we get usually in the fall, winter and spring, and we don’t see that in the monsoon. The monsoon is when we get our big haboobs,” Lader said. In order for a dust storm to be termed a haboob, it must be generated by a strong burst of wind associated with a thunderstorm downdraft, which is why haboobs most often occur during the monsoon thunderstorm season.

A diagram illustrating the formation of a thunderstorm and associated haboob. (Photo credit: National Weather Service)

Channelized dust events tend to be more localized, but yet are created by a larger scale system such as a cold front, with strong winds ahead of it. These type of events most often occur outside of monsoon season during fall, winter and spring.

Because these desert dust storms develop in different ways and seasons, they also have the greatest impacts at different times of day.

“Typically a channelized event is going to hit as early as 10 in the morning. We have seen a number events in the 10 a.m.-noon timeframe because that’s when the winds first pick up and then after that the particles that are most susceptible to be blown are blown away,” Lader said.

On the other hand, haboobs are associated with the summertime thunderstorm season, so their timing tend to be later in the afternoon and into the evening hours when thunderstorm development is at its peak.

“Haboobs usually happen around a favored part of the day because that’s when thunderstorms have a favored time of development, and so it’s usually going to be late in the afternoon/ early evening typically,” said Drozd.

Both channelized dust events and haboobs have a dark history of wreaking havoc on Arizona highways such as Interstate 10 from Tucson to Phoenix. In recent years there has also been a spike in incidents and road closures east of Tucson near San Simon, for channelized dust blowing off an agricultural field in the area.

With these massive dust storms posing a threat to the public on I-10 connecting Tucson and Phoenix, a new project is in the works to increase driver safety when driving into dust storm. The new project by the Arizona Department of Transportation will include sensors that will detect when dust causes decreased visibility, along with digital speed limit signs to lower the speed limit during hazardous dust storms.

Although the project is aimed to increase driver safety, it will not be completed and in operation until late 2018 or early 2019. This means drivers still need to be aware of the hidden dangers and not underestimate the power of a haboob.

“While this detection and warning system will be a great step forward, no amount of technology will replace common sense when it comes to driving in adverse conditions such as blowing dust,” said John Halikowski, director of ADOT.

“For all the travelers coming through here that have no idea what a haboob is, especially if they are coming from Phoenix towards Tucson and you see that wall coming at you,” Drozd said. “That is something on our educational efforts to get that message out there somehow to get people informed about it.”

Taylor Dayton is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at taylordayton@email.arizona.edu

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