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Dust storms and sandstorms, which commonly go by the Arabic name “haboobs,” are among Nature’s most impressive and unnerving phenomena. Under seemingly calm sunny or slate-gray skies, you might look to the horizon to see a veritable wall of tawny shadow. Minutes later, your visibility’s down to virtually nothing and there’s choking grit everywhere.
These monumental clouds of low, fast-moving particles present real hazards to anyone caught unawares. Even as motorists are slowed or stalled and those inside trapped for the time being, people overtaken outside on foot or bicycle–or who must for an extreme reason venture outdoors–must be equipped to protect themselves.
Haboobs, Related Storms, and the Risks They Pose
Sandstorms and dust storms are most common in certain arid and semi-arid regions such as the Sahara and Arabian deserts, the Australian outback, and the drylands of the American Southwest. Actually, blinding clouds of similar nature may be encountered in other regions, too, as long as there’s a lot of barren and exposed sediment–big tracts of plowed ground, say, or a tract of seashore dunes–and the requisite atmospheric conditions. They may be kicked up by the chaotic winds of thunderstorms or the gusts of a big weather front (the volatile boundary of two air masses). In their true desert strongholds, their leading edge can tower 1,000 meters high, and they can motor along at a frightening clip: up to 100 kilometers per hour.
Bits of sand or dirt lodged in your eyes aren’t just a sensory annoyance: They can also cause corneal abrasions–scratches to that all-important frontal tissue that facilitates image focusing and protects the eye’s interior. Your eyelashes and tears do much to keep out irritants in normal conditions, but the full onslaught of a dust storm is a different story. Meantime such airborne particles, breathed in, can irritate and dry out your nasal passages, throat, and lungs.
In short, a haboob–or one of its little cousins–is not an event to dismiss as an exotic novelty or a sublime expression of earthly forces (although that it is). If you’re traveling in country that might generate such a disturbance, you need to be prepared to swiftly protect those moist and sensitive breathing passageways and those delicate ocular nooks.
Protection for the Eyes, Nose, and Mouth
Staying inside is the best means of avoiding the respiratory and ocular complications of a sandstorm. That said, if you must go out in the gritty maelstrom, or if you’re caught outdoors by a fast-moving storm, there are a few precautions you can take to lessen the impacts.

If the contact lenses you ordered from Next Day Lenses or some other outfitter become irritated, take them out as soon as you can do so with proper sanitation and care and don a backup pair of eyeglasses. Dampen a bandanna or light cloth and wrap it around your nose and mouth; even better, strap on a facemask or respirator if you have access to one. You can also apply a bit of petroleum jelly to the nostrils to protect them from desiccation. To shield your eyes, meanwhile, wear close-fitting goggles.
Monumental shelves of dust and sand are certainly sights to see, but ideally through the security of a window. Seek adequate shelter immediately if you spot one approaching or are forewarned.
Simon Walters is an experienced traveller. He enjoys taking his adventures and turning them into informative blog posts.