SYDNEY // A pall of red dust blown in from the Outback clogged the skies over Sydney today, diverting international flights, disrupting public transport and prompting a spike in emergency calls from people suffering breathing difficulties. No one was reported hurt as a result of dust storms sweeping a vast swath of eastern Australia, but officials closed ferry services on Sydney Harbour because visibility was cut to dangerous levels, and police in two states warned motorists to take extra care on the roads. Such thick dust is a rarity over Australia's largest city, and came along with whiplashing winds and other uncommon weather conditions across the country in recent days.
Hailstorms have pummelled parts of the country this week, while other parts have been hit with an early spring mini-heatwave, and wildfires. Dust storms were reported today along Australia's heavily populated eastern coast, from Ulladulla, south of Sydney, to Brisbane, about 1,000km north. Other areas in the south-east were hit earlier this week. The storms - visible as a huge brown smudge in satellite photographs of Australia on today - are the most severe since the 1940s, experts said. International flights to Sydney were being diverted to other state capitals because of visibility problems caused by the dust. Three flights from neighbouring New Zealand were turned back from Sydney, Air New Zealand spokesman Mark Street said. Qantas, Australia's national airline and biggest international carrier, said it expected severe delays throughout today. Officials said particle pollution in Sydney's air was the worst on record today, and the New South Wales state ambulance service said it had received more than 250 calls before midday from people suffering breathing problems.
The dust descended on Sydney on Tuesday night, carried by powerful winds that snatched up tons of topsoil from country's drought-ravaged inland and threw it high into the sky. As dawn broke, sunlight struggled to penetrate the dust cloud, casting an eerie red glow over the city and prompting scores of calls to local radio stations. * AP