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Living Through a Dust Event: Chat with a GLOBE Participant

The EPA is celebrating Air Quality Week (May 4-8) and the GLOBE Clouds team would like to ask everyone again for your photographs of dust events! We got a chance to chat with Anne Semrau, a biology teacher at New Mexico State University, who sent in some amazing photographs of a dust event.

Anne SemrauQuestion: Where are you from? Where do you live now?

Answer: I am mostly from Texas (different parts: Dallas, Houston, Austin, rural northeast Texas) but I have lived in several other places (Navajo Nation, California, Montana, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Missouri, Washington DC).


Question: In your words, what is a dust storm? Are there stories from the community or elders about dust storms and how they form?

Answer: A dust storm is like a dense fog made of dust. It’s a windy storm that blows dust all around and high up into the air. A Navajo elder told me that the storms are a warning. The storms come because people are doing something wrong and you need to stay away from the storm. The USGS has a video about dust and dune migration that has some elders talking: A Record of Change: Science and Elder Observations on the Navajo Nation. https://www.usgs.gov/media/videos/a-record-change-science-and-elder-observations-navajo-n.


Question: Can you describe what happens when a dust storm starts to form? Are there any sounds or smells?

Answer: I haven’t been there when they start. We sometimes have strong winds here (20-30 mph sustained, with gusts of up to 50mph) and the combination of wind and limited vegetation (desert lands) creates the conditions for a dust storm. The area where I witnessed the storm has a sign, “Use extreme caution, zero visibility possible.” Typically, the visibility is fine through there, but now that I have seen this storm, I know that the sign is real. There was another sign in a nearby town, “Take 5 to stay alive” which was about taking five minutes off the road when there’s a dust storm – don’t try to keep driving through it.


Question: How many dust storms have you seen? Do you have memories of a particular storm?

 Answer: I see small dust devils pretty often – the conditions here make them possible. Sometimes they look like small tornadoes, a funnel cloud with debris in it. I was in a dust storm in the Sahara once. It came up so fast, we were sitting around after dinner, just relaxing and then we had to jump up and run into the tent. The sand was blowing hard and stinging my skin and eyes. Our Berber guide wrapped up in a blanket and huddled near the tent; he said that it was his tradition to stay outside in it. They had stories of camels and tents being buried by the sand. The storm cleared in a few hours and then the night was beautiful, clear skies full of stars.


Question: What tips do you have to someone that comes face to face with a dust storm?

 Answer: Take cover if possible. Try to protect your breathing (wet bandana, dust mask).


Question: What is one thing you’ve learned (important lesson) that you would like to share?

 Answer: Reading about the health effects of dust is really sobering. Dust pneumonia, valley fever – these are problems that are likely going to get worse with the climate change that we are seeing here (hotter, drier). The Navajo elder who said that dust storms are a warning – he’s right about that


Learn more about dust storms at NASA GLOBE Clouds Dust Observations site and see how you can contribute to research!



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