Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 November 2019

What causes the UAE's sandstorms and are they dangerous?

Everything you need to know about sandstorms and how to avoid them making you sick

For days, the UAE has been caught in the grip of sandstorms that have affected large parts of the country.

On Sunday, the air quality was so bad the Plume Air Report app, which monitors air quality in cities across the world, displayed "Airpocalyptic" levels of pollution that were almost four times higher than those considered unhealthy for sensitive groups.

Forecasters issued another weather warning on Monday, warning of the potential of widespread dust storms.

The good news is they are supposed to tail off in the coming days. But as we approach summer, sandstorms are likely to be a regular occurrence – but why? And why do they potentially pose a risk to everyone’s health, not just asthma sufferers?

How common are sandstorms?

In the UAE, they are certainly not unusual. They most often hit, however, during the summer and times of turbulent weather, such as during the transition from winter to spring, when rising temperatures cause strong winds. The number is expected to increase with the effects of global warming, according to a report published in 2017.

The more extreme sandstorms are usually seen elsewhere in the region in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq as they often experience strong north-westerly winds.

Pedestrians cross amid a sandstorm at Al Hamra Village, Ras Al Khaimah. Reem Mohammed / The National
Pedestrians cross amid a sandstorm at Al Hamra Village, Ras Al Khaimah. Reem Mohammed / The National

What are sandstorms made of?

A lot more than just sand. Sandstorms typically contain silica crystals as well as viruses, bacteria, dust mites, funghi and even plants. They have been blamed for spreading meningitis spores across the meningitis belt of Africa. The storms can also transmit viruses such as influenza, say scientists. Some experts have even claimed the massive 2001 foot and mouth outbreak in the UK was caused by a large storm in North Africa, which may have carried the spores to the north of the UK a week before the first cases were reported.

Who is at risk from becoming sick?

According to the American Thoracic Society, sand particles can be inhaled, but are usually too large to be deposited in the lungs, so they generally become trapped in the upper airway. As a result, upper airway and mucus membrane irritation is the most common health effect.

People who suffer from allergies or asthma suffer the most. Just 15 minutes of exposure to even small-sized particles increases the potential of suffering from symptoms of asthma. But anyone with a weakened immune system, including the elderly, the very young and pregnant women, are more at risk of being infected by the viruses or bacteria contained in desert dust.

A large sandstorm that swept through the UAE in 2015. 
A large sandstorm that swept through the UAE in 2015. 

What should I do in a sandstorm?

If you possibly can, you should stay indoors until it passes. And if not, use a mask or a wet towel to save you from inhaling in the dust particles. Running an air purifier inside will help. And doctors say it is also important to stay hydrated.

Why don't UAE sandstorms look like the ones on TV?

The UAE's location and climate does not tend to expose it to the extreme winds found elsewhere. Forecasters say most of the dust storms that reach here originate in the dried-up marshlands of either Kuwait or Iraq, but they usually blow themselves out before they get as far as the Emirates. So instead of a fast-moving wall of air, as seen in Dubai on Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, the sand is left suspended.

The UAE's sandstorms are rarely as visually dramatic as they one in Dubai in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Courtesy Paramount Pictures
The UAE's sandstorms are rarely as visually dramatic as they one in Dubai in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Courtesy Paramount Pictures

Updated: March 26, 2019 09:42 AM

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