On Monday evening in southern Arizona, cars and trucks disappeared from the usually well-trafficked Interstate 8 highway.
A massive dust storm, known as a haboob, smothered the road and surrounding region in a thick cloud of desert dust. Storm chaser Mike Olbinski had a “good inkling” thunderstorms in the area might produce such a storm, and rushed east, from California.
But he wasn’t expecting a towering, apocalyptic wall of dust.
“The dust storm was so bad everyone stopped driving on the road,” said Olbinski in an interview. “It was intense and pretty dangerous.”
Olbinski chased storms for 600 miles on Monday, including this particular haboob for some 150 miles. Eventually, as it night fell, the storm caught up to him and smothered his truck.
“This dust storm had zero visibility,” said Olbinski, who also noted winds between 50 and 75 miles per hour. “It basically sandblasted my truck.”
Haboobs, derived from the Arabic word “haab,” which means wind or blow, typically hit during the desert Southwest’s monsoon season, in which thunderstorms can drop deluges of rain onto the parched desert.
If conditions are right, these thunderstorms will move from higher terrain or mountainous areas to the lower deserts, said Ken Waters, Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the National Weather Service Phoenix office, in an interview.
Once here, thunderstorms “expend all their energy at once,” said Waters.
The rain-cooled air “just kind of collapses,” and as this air shoots out from the storm, it ripples over the ground, stirring up sand and dust from the desert floor.
“That dust gets lofted and basically just forms a big cloud that moves rapidly,” said Waters. “As it moves, it tends to pick up more dust.”
Waters estimates this particular haboob traveled around 250 miles. During these events, the dust-laden winds can sometimes hit 80 to 100 mph, Waters noted, and past haboobs have traveled some 400 miles with dust reaching up to 6,000 feet high.
“They can be quite hazardous if you’re on the road — it can be lights out, and you can’t see five or 10 feet ahead,” said Waters.
It’s understandable, then, why cars had vacated the interstate. Except, of course, for some brazen storm chasers.
“We could have kept running, but it had gotten dark,” said Olbinski.