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Zero Visibility

They can occur in dry regions all over the world. They can obscure the sun and reduce visibility to almost zero. They can obliterate roads in a matter of minutes. And they are responsible for causing respiratory problems and numerous deaths every year.

Behind earthquakes and hurricanes, sand and dust storms are one of the most harrowing and dangerous phenomena known to the world. Each year, they leave people lost, disoriented and gasping for air. While there are parts of the world where they are more frequent like North Africa, the Middle East and China, they truly can occur anywhere at any time. In regions that are prone to drought, they are even more frequent and pose a significant threat.

Sand and dust storms are no matter to be taken lightly. They take preparation and experience to cope with, and their control and management at the hands of people is of utmost importance.

Punishing Waves

Sand and dust storms are caused by strong winds blowing over loose sand or dirt. Generally, the added component of ground heating causes a convection current to make the whole experience more intense. At their worst, these storms come in relentless and punishing waves.

Until the beginning of this decade, predicting the occurrence of sand and dust storms was almost impossible. In scientifically advanced countries, meteorologists now have the capability to detect and warn local populations about the onset of storms. When China experienced the worst sand storms they had seen in decades in 2002, it was the help of satellites that allowed them to make a forecast almost three days before the storms even hit.

Sand and dust storms are not entirely natural phenomena, meaning that there are certain human behaviors that can make the environment more prone to them. Poorly irrigated land, environmentally unfriendly use of forested land and overgrazing all contributed to the formation of the storms. In many regions of the world, improving means of consumption and restoring overused resources can control sand and dust storms.

There are places in the world where technology is not highly advanced enough to detect sand and dust storms, and the land is truly prone to cause such phenomena. In these places, it is especially important that locals maintain environmentally friendly practices.

Baghdad Blues

In Baghdad, it is common to see Iraqis turn their back to the wind, squint, wear goggles, surgical mask and numerous other personal effects designed to help combat the harsh effects of sand and dust blowing in the wind.

The great walls of sand that surround the city, when driven by the scorching hot winds, smack the buildings and windows of the city. The natural phenomenon delays business, travel and interferes with the city’s power supply. Recently, sand storms were so bad that US Vice President Joe Biden had to cancel his visit with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani because his plane would not have been able to land. The drought in the country has been so bad that sand storms have been at an all time high this year. Officials have been urging locals to do everything they can to minimize damage to the land done by grazing.

However, there are other issues that are causing dangerous and destructive conditions as well. Since the Gulf War in 1991, military vehicles have been moving extensively through the region. They have loosened what once was a packed, solid ground surface and turned it into dust. The land is now exposed to wind erosion and has contributed significantly to dust storms and damage of desert plants. The problem only continues to get worse with the ongoing US military invasion of Iraq.   And it doesn’t help that wind speeds have generally been high in the region recently, causing even more damage.

When the winds finally do die down, in addition to repairing their war torn city, Baghdad residents will have the added responsibility of sweeping up sand and dust.

Yellow Dust

From March to May of every year, it is yellow dust season in East Asia. Winds pick up sands from the deserts of Mongolia and China, and in the process gather toxic particles from China’s industrial regions, blowing them clear into Korea, Japan and other countries.

As the dust particles pick up speed, they cover the atmosphere and turn the sky yellow. They also leave a coating on everything in their path. The pollutants in the air trigger lung and immune diseases. Schools and businesses have to close down on some days due to visibility issues. Billions of dollars are lost in the manufacturing industry, especially among makers of hi-tech goods whose products are sensitive to the dust. To make matters worse, the storms seem to be getting worse each year, caused in part by deforestation, desertification and overfeeding of livestock. There are dozens of deaths every year, mostly of elderly people, due to health complications from the dust.

In recent years, scientists believe the dust is carried even further due to stronger wind patterns. Some even suggest the particles reach the United States.

Strong Movement Forward

The fact is that there is a strong movement in effect, especially in places like China and the Middle East, to tackle the problem of desertification that greatly contributes such storms. The governments of both regions are working with local populations to reduce and eliminate practices that lead to the degradation of land. Rehabilitation of land that has been abused, including mulching and reseeding, is underway in many locations and it will allow ground to moisten and plants to grow. Furthermore, education on good land management is becoming a much more common practice. With so many ways to reduce and prevent sand and dust storms, there is hope that the threat of such storms will be far less in the future.