When most people think of weather in the Southwest desert, the first thing that often comes to their minds is either the beautiful winter or hot summer temperatures. Arizona is also known for its summer Monsoons; Texas its tornadoes. Some weather events are given less attention, however, such as nasty desert rainstorms and potentially dangerous dust storms. For travelers not familiar with living in the desert or even the Great Plains, it would be wise to take some time to learn a little about these serious but often underestimated weather events. Here we focus on staying safe in dust storms and channels.
Is It a Dust Storm or Dust Channel?
There are two types of dust events that can commonly occur, a dust storm or a dust channel. According to the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), a dust storm is a massive wall of dust that can extend thousands of feet high and several miles long. These can often be seen miles in the distance, giving drivers a chance to either get off the road or choose a different route away from the storm. Although dust storms can occur at any time of the year, they are more common during the summer monsoon season.
A dust channel is a more localized, erratic event. They are fast-moving and can occur without warning. Even though dust channels are more localized, they are often associated with larger weather systems that contain strong winds. Because these do not have to be related to a thunderstorm, they can occur any time of the day, making them more unpredictable. These events are more common in the Fall, Winter, and Spring.
Both dust storms and channels are unpredictable and can occur unexpectedly, sweeping across an area at any time. They can wipe out visibility to near zero in a matter of seconds. When this happens, it makes driving quite hazardous, even deadly. Travelers need to be aware that highways such as I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson are especially susceptible to unfortunate accidents.
An Ounce of Preparation
The State of Arizona has implemented an informative public awareness program focused on raising awareness of and educating people on dust storms. This program is called “Pull Aside, Stay Alive.” ADOT, Arizona Emergency Information Network, local and state governments, and the media all have put together useful educational information to help raise awareness of these weather events and what drivers should do in the event they get caught in one.
It can be quite intimidating to see a massive wall of dust coming at you or to get swallowed up in it. Taking the time to mentally prepare on how to handle getting caught in a dust storm or channel can make all the difference. Here are tips as posted on one of ADOT’s websites:
- “Avoid driving into or through a dust storm.
- If you encounter a dust storm, immediately check traffic around your vehicle and begin slowing down.
- Do not wait until poor visibility makes it difficult to safely pull off the roadway – do it as soon as possible.
- Do not stop in a travel lane or in the emergency lane. Look for a safe place to pull completely off the paved portion of the highway.
- Turn off all vehicle lights, including emergency flashers. You do not want other vehicles approaching from behind to use your lights as a guide, possibly crashing into your parked vehicle.
- Set emergency brake and take foot off the brake.
- Stay in vehicle with seat belts buckled and wait for the storm to pass.” (ADOT)
Some website resources that might be helpful to read about these storms:
- Pull Aside, Stay Alive (http://pullasidestayalive.org/)
- Most Common Natural Hazards-Dust Storms (https://www.maricopa.gov/5143/Most-Common-Natural-Hazards)
- Arizona Emergency Information Network – Dust Storms (https://ein.az.gov/hazards/dust-storms)
- Monsoon Safety (http://monsoonsafety.org/#)
- New Mexico Monsoon Awareness Home (https://www.weather.gov/abq/prepawaremonsoonhome)
Most of these resources are from the State of Arizona, but the commonsense information found in them applies anywhere dust storms are common.
An article in the Albuquerque Journal on June 20, 2017, discussed the seriousness of getting caught in a dust storm. It is titled, “Driving in a dust storm ‘a terrifying experience.’” The article details how 18 commercial trucks and seven passenger vehicles were involved in a pileup that resulted in six deaths. It echos some of the same safety tips published above. It is worth reading.
A Little Awareness Goes a Long Way
Dust storms and dust channels are not a daily event, and chances are likely you will not encounter one on a visit to the region. If you do, however, having an understanding of what these events specifically are, how quickly they can develop, how long they can last, and how to react when caught driving in one it can make all the difference in keeping you and others around you safe.
- Arizona Department of Transportation. (No Date). Pull Aside, Stay Alive. Retrieved on 8/11/2019 from http://pullasidestayalive.org/
- Doug Pacey, Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT). (6/14/2017). Dust storms and dust channels: What’s the difference? Retrieved on 8/11/2019 from https://azdot.gov/media/blog/posts/2017/06/14/dust-storms-and-dust-channels-what-s-the-difference
- Maggie Shepard, Albuquerque Journal. (6/20/2017). Driving in a dust storm ‘a terrifying experience.’ Retrieved 8/12/2019 from https://www.abqjournal.com/1021050/driving-through-dust-storm-a-terrifying-experience.html
- Taylor Dayton, Arizona Sonora News. (5/11/2017). Haboobs: One of Arizona’s most underrated weather hazards. Retrieved on 8/11/2019 from https://arizonasonoranewsservice.com/haboobs-one-of-arizonas-most-underrated-weather-hazards/