My young friend from Arizona was not happy. He had served in Iraq and learned to hate haboobs. The silly sounding name meant huge storms of blinding sand and choking dust.
These huge storms of sand blasted equipment and endangered even the most advanced helicopters. It was a relief to finish his hitch and return home to Phoenix. Then, on July 6, a haboob followed him and attacked Arizona.
Tucson thunderstorms producing Phoenix dust storms
Source: National Weather Service—Phoenix Office
Haboob is the Arabic word for "strong wind” or “phenomenon” and what a phenomenon it is. What hit Phoenix was a mile high and 100 miles wide. Winds 30 to 50 MPH, with gusts of 70 MPH slammed the hapless city. There was zero visibility. Trees were uprooted, power lines came down and cars were sandblasted. Airplanes huddled on the tarmac, unable to fly. Arizonans are tough—they are used to at least three dust storms a year. But a haboob is a dust storm on steroids and this one left the city of Phoenix dazed.
Haboobs are not all bad news however. They are usually a signal that rain is nearby. In desert areas they are caused by thunderstorms. When a thunderstorm is building, winds blow from all directions into the thunderstorm. Then, when the storm collapses and begins to rain, the wind directions reverse, gusting outward from the storm. In Arizona, strong thunderstorms developed in Tucson on July 5, 2011. They produced heavy rain and blasting winds that raced northwest. By time the winds reached Phoenix, they had produced a towering wall of dust that buried the city. Then came the rain – but since we are talking about a city in the desert—it was only 0.04 inches. Most people, still reeling from the haboob, didn’t notice.
There is one more bit of news about haboobs. They are frequently the result of the northward summer shift of the inter-tropical front. In layman’s terms – they are a sign that the wet season of the monsoon is coming!
Haboobs also hit Texas and New Mexico
Source: National Weather Service—Norman, Oklahoma Office
This doesn’t mean the end of haboobs. They can be found in the dry and dusty places throughout the world—the Sahara Desert, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula and, closer to home, New Mexico and Texas.
For 45 minutes, Phoenix was devoured by a giant storm. Then, like all storms, it blew away and people cleaned everything up again. And my young friend—he is currently working on a sun tan under Arizona’s sunny skies.
Evelyn Browning Garriss, historical climatologist, is a longtime writer for The Old Farmer's Almanac. She is also editor of The Browning World Climate Bulletin  and has advised farmers, businesses, and investors worldwide on upcoming climate events and their economic and social impact for the past 21 years.