Dust Storm or Just Blowing Dirt?

If you are not from the area, it might seem like a difference without a distinction. If you happen to live in a place where, as long as we have written and geologic records, the soil has traveled downwind, it’s an important difference.

Note the make of the cars. Welcome to the Filthy Fifties, which were drier than the 1930s around here. Image source: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2019/04/07/dust-storms-just-part-life-west-texas/3378177002/

The above is a dust storm. They happen when the wind picks up so much dust that it starts attracting more, and you get black (or deep red) skies and lots and lots of static. In my part of the world, they often came from the north, part of a screaming cold front, but not always. In the 1950s people could identify the looming wind shift based on the color of dirt. Some cars would be shorted out by the static in the air, and woe betide you if you touched a barbed-wire fence. They became electrified. A dust storm is a haboob, “black roller” that tosses dirt and sand well into the sky. If you can see over it from the ground, it’s not a dust storm (by local standards). Back in the day, some were so bad south of the Panhandle that the blowing sand would strip the paint off of cars. I’ve not heard of that in a very, very long time.

I’ve been inside a dust storm once. The sky turned dark red, the wind howled, I could see two blocks in town, and the power went out for four hours. There wasn’t much to do besides read on my Kindle, then sit and listen to the wind and wait for the power to come back.

Blowing dust is just that. In local areas you will have poor visibility, such as downwind of a construction site or bare field (depending on soil moisture and wind direction). The top soil departs and gets into the air, but you can see blue-ish sky over the layer of dirt. Straight up might be blue, or somewhat brassy (as I type this, it is brassy in town, so it is probably icky brown in more open areas.) Visibility can drop locally, but you don’t have huge swaths of the area shut down because of no visibility at all. As I type, the wind is 270 at 41 MPH gusting to 67 MPH. Which explains why, as I drove back from Day Job, I saw exactly one semi on the interstate, and he was east bound. Everyone else is staying parked until this weakens, lest they end up on their sides, or needing to refuel every ten miles. We’re supposed to get a hard wind shift around 2000, 50 MPH from the north, then tapering off quickly.

If you go back to the earliest written accounts of the region, and from areas to the east, you find that the dirt blew long before humans farmed out here. The bunch-grasses had gaps between clumps when it got a little dry. Bare soil + steady dry winds = traveling topsoil. The dust storms are less common, but still happen.

9 thoughts on “Dust Storm or Just Blowing Dirt?

  1. “270 at 41 MPH”–Do I hear a pilot speaking, or are weather-sensitive farm-country people this conversant with weather?

  2. My mother’s family made the mistake of trying to homestead in SE Colorado (Rattlesnake Butte). The dust storms eventually blew them to California.

  3. Been a while since I saw one of them brewing up. It was “close things NOW!” or skip a trip, get under cover, and wait for it to blow over. Impressive, and scary to see the sky go black with that red-brown bar at the bottom.

  4. And the further west you go, the better the chance that it will be blowing sand, which WILL sandblast the paint off the car. I’ve seen that going across California where one side of the cars in the car lot were shiny and the other side still had paint.

  5. Last week I was watching a YouTube travel video with somebody pulling a camper from the Gulf Coast of Texas to Utah.
    They had just reached the panhandle when the big winds started up. Their fuel mileage dropped by half, and after a half day dealing with the winds they just stopped somewhere to wait the winds out.

    • I drove back from Albuquerque with a 50 MPH direct crosswind. Once. One FedEx delivery van, two other pickups, and I were the only traffic on I-40 from Tucumcari to Bushland. That was Not Fun. I didn’t try to do the limit. 50 MPH was as fast as felt safe.

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