How Do Sandstorms Occur?

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Sandstorms advance like a moving wall.
Sandstorms advance like a moving wall. (Image: Ahmad Atwah/iStock/Getty Images)

Sandstorms, or dust storms, turn day into night. They occur when two elements are present: high wind and loose sand or dust. There's no controlling the wind, but sometimes we can control how much dust is ready to be blown away. Nature has its own controls, which humans can either help or hurt.

The First Element: High Winds

Dust storms require high, powerful, straight-line winds.

The Second Element: Loose Dust

Soil, sand, and dust are loose where there's little vegetation to hold them down. They're prone to erosion and deposition by wind, called aeolian transport. Light topsoil flies before sand and grit. It forms hilly deposits of compacted dust and silt called loess, and sand dunes, found around the world. Trade winds carry dust from the Sahara to the Amazon rain forests, where it provides mineral nutrients to the rain forests growing on poor soil.

The Great Sand Dunes National Monument is comprised of huge windblown deposits.
The Great Sand Dunes National Monument is comprised of huge windblown deposits. (Image: Comstock Images/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

The Dust Bowl is an Outstanding Example

The Dust Bowl in 1930s America combined several factors: "Sod busters" were farmers who broke the prairie sod that held the rich soil together. A period of extended drought dried the soil, and strong cold front winds blew the soil away. Meanwhile the Depression cut the agricultural market. Farms failed and more than a million people fled west to find work. Congress created the Soil Erosion Service to help farmers with methods to reduce their soil's exposure to wind and water erosion.

Farming still loosens dust.
Farming still loosens dust. (Image: Image Source/Digital Vision/Getty Images)

Natural and Artificial Defenses

Sand and silt deposits will move unless there's enough vegetation to hold them in place. The Great Plains provide an example of a blanket of sod that holds the soil, unless it's disturbed. Even in dry conditions, "desert pavement" forms a surface crust of interlocking gravel. But again, it fails when disturbed. Artificial soil conservation includes reformed farming practices like no-till and cover crops. These can't prevent storm conditions, but they can minimize storm damage.

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