On May 28, 2018, a series of potent dust storms swept across Iran, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Accuweather reported winds approaching hurricane-force—70 miles/110 kilometers per hour—near the city of Zabol in eastern Iran. Visibility dropped to zero at several points during the storms that lasted up to 12 hours in some places. News media claimed that as many as 100 people were injured across the region.
The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite acquired this image of the dust storms on May 28, 2018. Such storms, sometimes known as haboobs, are dramatic events associated with weather fronts, and they often appear as walls of sand and dust marching across the landscape. Like thunderstorms, haboobs tend to abrupt and short-lived.
Meteorologists noted that the late-May dust storms were “caused by a strong upper level storm system that tracked north of the region, bringing thunderstorms to Turkmenistan and northern Afghanistan, but just producing powerful winds in eastern Iran.” Sea surface temperatures in the Arabian Sea have been about 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius (2.5–3.5° Fahrenheit) above normal in May, which could be contributing to the development of potent winds and storm fronts blowing across the Middle East and India this spring.
Iran is mostly arid or semiarid, with deserts making up at least 25 million hectares (100,000 square miles) of the country’s area. That already dry landscape has been parched by drought over the past year. Iranian environmental officials recently reported that 18 wetlands have completely dried up in recent months, and another 24 are in critical condition. Lake Urmia has been affected by warmer weather and drier than normal conditions over the past few decades. Such conditions have increased the amount of sand and dust available to be picked up by strong winds.
Several governments and international groups have been looking for solutions to ease the region’s water and dust problems, which are partly due to drought and global warming, but also attributed by some scientists to uneven water management practices (irrigation, storage, treatment, and groundwater pumping). In the meantime, the Iranian government recently reported that it would be spreading petroleum-based mulch across 46,000 hectares of the desert this year in order to cut down on dust pollution.
NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using MODIS data from LANCE/EOSDIS Rapid Response. Story by Mike Carlowicz.