Arizona’s monsoon season has arrived, and that means haboobs are here too. These dust storms are a staple summer weather event for locals in the Valley, and they’re more dangerous than their name lets on.
Haboobs (derived from the Arabic word for “strong wind”) are the leading cause of injuries by hazard in Arizona, according to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Technical Memorandum report on blowing dust and dust storms. The report also found that haboobs are the third leading cause of death by hazard in the state, behind heat and flooding.
According to Jaret Rogers, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Phoenix, haboobs are typically generated from thunderstorm wind gusts. As a thunderstorm decays, it produces strong wind gusts over open desert that kick up dust, which causes an outflow.
It’s this outflow that can travel dozens of miles across the desert, kicking up dust along the way and creating the wall of sand that citizens of the Valley see during the summer months.
Chandler, Queen Creek and Ahwatukee are especially vulnerable to dust storms, Rogers said, because thunderstorms often develop near Tucson and the open desert between creates a large opportunity for the collection of dust. Those southernmost cities are the first to get hit.
“It’s not always obvious when they’re going to hit, so it can be short notice,” Rogers said. “You may only have 10 or 15 minutes before you can see the wall of dust that’s going to hit you.”
The biggest concern is safety for motorists, as dust storms can decrease visibility down to almost zero. “Pull Aside, Stay Alive” is the slogan of the National Weather Service, which advises drivers to pull over as far away from the road as possible to wait out a haboob.
The National Weather Service also issues dust storm warnings so people have the opportunity to take precautions.
Although monsoon season officially takes place between June 15 and September 30, Rogers said, the most common time for haboobs to hit is late June and early July. They tend to occur in the late afternoon or early evening.
One of the biggest haboobs in recent history took place in Phoenix on July 5, 2011. Ken Waters, the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Phoenix at the time, told EarthSky.org that the storm was so big because there had been no rain in parts of Arizona for up to four months, meaning there was a lot of available dust.
While there isn’t anything anyone can do to stop the storm from coming, there are measures that citizens of the Valley can take to ride it out.
“Pay attention to the dust storm warning in our forecast,” Rogers said. “And just take safety precautions.”