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Mar 10 / Dave Schumaker

Dust storms on Earth and Mars

Gusty winds blasted across northern Utah on Wednesday, March 4, 2009. Source: MODIS Rapid Response Team

NASA’s Earth Observatory posted this image last week of a dust storm blew across northern Utah last week.

The winds scoured dust off the Great Salt Lake Desert and Bonneville Salt Flats and showered it down across the northern part of the state. This image of the dust storm was captured by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite on March 4, 2009. The dust clouds show up as pale ripples above the duller tan of the underlying desert.

These large dust storms are not a feature unique to our own planet either. Mars is famous for them as well – and some have even been captured in vivid detail.

Source: Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

So what do these monstrous storms look like on the ground? There are some fascinating videos from YouTube. This one is from Australia.

And here is video from a dust storm in Iraq in 2005.

What causes a dust storm and where do they commonly occur? As always, Wikipedia has a great article.

A dust storm or sandstorm is a meteorological phenomenon common in arid and semi-arid regions and arises when a gust front passes or when the wind force exceeds the threshold value where loose sand and dust are removed from the dry surface. Particles are transported by saltation and suspension, causing soil erosion from one place and deposition in another. The Sahara and drylands around the Arabian peninsula are the main source of airborne dust, with some contributions from Iran, Pakistan and India into the Arabian Sea, and China’s storms deposit dust in the Pacific. It has been argued that recently, poor management of the Earth’s drylands, such as neglecting the fallow system, are increasing dust storms from desert margins and changing both the local and global climate, and also impacting local economies.

The term sandstorm is used most often in the context of desert sandstorms, especially in the Sahara, when, in addition to fine particles obscuring visibility, a considerable amount of larger sand particles are blown closer to the surface. The term dust storm is more likely to be used when finer particles are blown long distances, especially when the dust storm affects urban areas.


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