Gusty springtime winds turned the skies yellow and beige in mid-March 2021 across northern Mexico, New Mexico, and west Texas. A strong low-pressure system blowing along the Mexico-United States border scattered dust in an unusually long-lasting storm.
Sustained winds of 35 to 45 miles (55 to 70 kilometers) per hour —with gusts to 65 (100)—lofted abundant streams of dust from the Chihuahuan Desert. The storm lasted nearly eight hours, reduced visibility to below a half-mile in some places, and degraded air quality, particularly in the El Paso-Juárez metropolitan area.
The Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the NOAA-NASA Suomi NPP satellite acquired a natural-color image (above) of the dust storm in the early afternoon on March 16, 2021. The NOAA-16 geostationary weather satellite acquired time-lapse video of the storm, including an enhanced product focused on the dust.
“The Chihuahuan Desert has been experiencing a drought in conjunction with La Niña, so conditions were even drier than usual and particularly primed for dust storms,” said Thomas Gill, a geology professor at the University of Texas–El Paso. “What was probably most unusual was the long-lasting nature of the event. Due to the relatively slow passage of the cyclone across New Mexico, El Paso experienced dusty weather basically for eight hours nonstop—more than twice as long as the historical average for dust events in the city—and until well after dark, which is also unusual.”
Gill identified dust sources in Willcox Playa, Laguna Los Moscos, the Nuevo Casas Grandes River, the Santa Maria River basin, Laguna Palomas, Paleolake Palomas, the Mimbres River floodplain, and White Sands. “There were also a lot of source areas, especially early in the event, much farther south in Chihuahua than typically seen over the years,” he added. “The winds from passing cyclones or fronts typically don’t penetrate that far south with much intensity.”
Dust storms can lead to visibility issues for motorists, causing traffic accidents. They can also worsen the symptoms of asthma and respiratory diseases.
Strong winds can move heavier sand grains tens of miles near the ground, while finer grains and dust particles can be carried hundreds to thousands of miles. Just this week, particles from a March 13 dust storm in northern Mexico and New Mexico mingled with the snow falling in Colorado, hundreds of miles to the north.
NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using VIIRS data from NASA EOSDIS LANCE, GIBS/Worldview, and the Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership. Story by Michael Carlowicz.