What You Need to Know about Haboobs and How to Stay Safe

Learn About These Summer Desert Storms

Dust storm rolling over residential area
••• jeff1farmer / Getty Images

A haboob may not sound like meteorological terminology, but this word refers to a desert windstorm. The word "haboob" comes from the Arabic word habb, meaning “wind.” A haboob is a wall of dust that is a result of a microburst or downburst—the air forced downward is pushed forward by the front of a thunderstorm cell, dragging dust and debris with it, as it travels across the terrain.

This photograph is from July 5, 2011, documenting one of the most significant dust storms ever recorded in the Valley of the Sun.

According to the National Weather Service, that storm was historic. Winds gusted over 50 miles per hour and it was determined that the dust reached at least 5,000 to 6,000 feet into the air. The leading edge stretched for almost 100 miles, and the dust traveled at least 150 miles. You can read extensive detail about this particular storm at the NOAA website.

If you are traveling to a desert area during the summer, you will want to understand more about a haboob and what to do if you find yourself in one.

Dust Storms Vs. Haboobs

Not every dust storm is a haboob. Generally, dust storms are closer to the ground and more widespread, where the wind picks up the desert dust and blow it across a wide area. Haboobs are created by thunderstorm cells, and are typically more concentrated, lifting the debris and dust much higher into the air.

Haboobs are much more serious than dust devils (a small whirlwind of dust).

The wind during a haboob is usually up to about 30 mph (but can be as strong as 60 mph) and dust can rise high into the air as it blows over the valley. A haboob can last for up to three hours and usually arrives suddenly.

Where You May Encounter a Haboob

Haboobs occur mostly during the summer months (but are not necessarily restricted to the monsoon period) in arid regions of Arizona, New Mexico, California, and Texas.

 Phoenix, for example, experiences various degrees of severity of these dust storms, but the haboob is the largest and most dangerous. According to the National Weather Service, Phoenix encounters on average about three haboobs per year during the months of June through September.

Keeping Safe During a Haboob

While a haboob is fascinating to watch, it is important to know what to do to be safe during this type of storm. If you are in a car, although it may be tempting, don't take photos while you are driving! In fact, it is important that you pull over immediately as visibility can quickly deteriorate. Make sure the car windows are rolled up and the doors and all vents tightly shut, and turn off any lights—headlights and interior—so other drivers do not mistake you for being on the road and try to follow you. Keep your seatbelt fastened and do not get out of the car! Stay put until the haboob has passed by. 

If you are in a building, shut the doors and close all windows and curtains. If the air conditioning is on, turn it off and close any vents. If the haboob is severe, try to move to a room without windows as the high winds can carry rocks or tree limbs that can shatter windows. The general tips about monsoon safety also apply to occasions when haboobs occur.