Dust storms are more dangerous than previously thought

Some dust events are more deadly and impactful than hurricanes or wildfires. Data shows that from 2007-2017, there were 232 deaths from traffic-related events during dust storms. The deadliest roadways are between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona and in southwestern New Mexico.

Researchers have uncovered that the effects of sudden dust storms are miscategorized, which has misled people to believe the impacts are less deadly than they truly are.

Experts at NOAA’s Air Resources Laboratory recently published a study in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society that found deaths from traffic-related events during dust storms were 2,320% higher than the initially reported figure.

Dust storms are triggered when gusty winds pick up sand and dust and form what appears to be a wall that can be miles long and thousands of feet high.

These events are known to quickly form and reduce visibilities similar to that of a blizzard seen at more northern latitudes.

Most of the world’s dust storms occur in the Middle East and Africa but do occasionally happen in the desert Southwest, especially during the warmer months of the year.

During the monsoon season, wind gusts from thunderstorms can cause broader impacting events known as a haboob.

The impacts from dust storms and haboobs are similar and can catch drivers off-guard and become disorienting.


"We found that dust events caused life losses comparable to events like hurricanes and wildfires in some years," said Daniel Tong, author and research scientist at NOAA and an associate professor of Atmospheric Oceanic and Earth Sciences at George Mason University, in a statement. "Greater awareness could reduce crashes and possibly save lives."

The research team reported from 2007-2017 only 10 deaths were directly attributed to dust storm events, but a closer examination of records puts the count around 232 – a figure not reflected in official crash report records.

Researchers found that databases and reporting sites simply do not identify incidents as being dust storm-related, even though visibilities were reduced, winds increased and tire traction became poor.


The Interstate 10 corridor in the Desert Southwest is one of the listed hotspots for impacts. 

According to the study, the deadliest roadways from dust storms are between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona and in southwestern New Mexico.

The Colorado Plateau, Columbia Plateau, in Washington and Oregon, High Plains and the Corn Belt are also subject to occasional dust events, especially during droughts.

To improve reporting of casualties, the authors suggested that weather agencies and law enforcement increase collaboration to identify the impacts of the weather extremes more accurately.

"We would see that huge highway crashes had occurred during dust storms, but later when we looked, we didn’t always see those events reflected in the official, national records," Tong said.

Local National Weather Service offices do a plethora of alerts and warnings that can be issued to give residents a heads-up about the impending conditions, but since the events are unpredictable, authorities advise travelers to always have a plan ready.