A dust storm or sandstorm is a meteorological phenomenon common in arid and semi-arid regions and arises when a gust front passes or when the wind force exceeds the threshold value where loose sand and dust are removed from the dry surface. Particles are transported by saltation and suspension, causing soil erosion from one place and deposition in another. The Sahara and drylands around the Arabian peninsula are the main source of airborne dust, with some contributions from Iran, Pakistan and India into the Arabian Sea, and China's storms deposit dust in the Pacific. It has been argued that recently, poor management of the Earth's drylands, such as neglecting the fallow system, are increasing dust storms from desert margins and changing both the local and global climate, and also impacting local economies.
The term sandstorm is used most often in the context of desert sandstorms, especially in the Sahara, when, in addition to fine particles obscuring visibility, a considerable amount of larger sand particles are blown closer to the surface. The term dust storm is more likely to be used when finer particles are blown long distances, especially when the dust storm affects urban areas.
As the force of wind passing over loosely held particles increases, particles of sand first start to vibrate, then to saltate ("leap"). As they repeatedly strike the ground, they loosen smaller particles of dust which then begin to travel in suspension. At wind speeds above that which causes the smallest to suspend, there will be a population of dust grains moving by a range of mechanisms: suspension, saltation and creep.
A recent study finds that the initial saltation of sand particles induces a static electric field by friction. Saltating sand acquires a negative charge relative to the ground which in turn loosens more sand particles which then begin saltating. This process has been found to double the number of particles predicted by previous theory.
Particles become loosely held mainly due to drought or arid conditions, and wind has varied causes. Gust fronts may be produced by the outflow of rain-cooled air from an intense thunderstorm, or they may represent a dry cold front, that is, a cold front that is moving into a dry air mass and is producing no precipitation. This is the type of dust storm which was common during the Dustbowl years in the U.S. Following the passage of a dry cold front, convective instability resulting from cooler air riding over heated ground can maintain the dust storm initiated at the front. In desert areas, dust and sand storms are most commonly caused by either thunderstorm outflows, or by strong pressure gradients which cause an increase in wind velocity over a wide area. The vertical extent of the dust or sand that is raised is largely determined by the stability of the atmosphere above the ground as well as by the weight of the particulates. In some cases, dust and sand may be confined to a relatively shallow layer by a low-lying temperature inversion. In other instances, dust (but not sand) may be lifted as high as 20,000 feet (6,100 m) high.
The Sahara desert is a key source of dust storms, particularly the Bodélé Depression and an area covering the confluence of Mauritania, Mali, and Algeria.
Saharan dust storms have increased approximately 10-fold during the half-century since the 1950s, causing topsoil loss in Niger, Chad, northern Nigeria, and Burkino Faso. In Mauritania there were just two dust storms a year in the early 1960s, but there are about 80 a year today, according to Andrew Goudie, a professor of geography at Oxford University. Levels of Saharan dust coming off the east coast of Africa in June (2007) were five times those observed in June 2006, and were the highest observed since at least 1999, which may cool Atlantic waters enough to slightly reduce hurricane activity in late 2007.
Dust can also have beneficial effects where it deposits: Central and South American rain forests get most of their mineral nutrients from the Sahara; iron-poor ocean regions get iron; and dust in Hawaii increases plantain growth. In northern China as well as the mid-western U.S., ancient dust storm deposits known as loess are highly fertile soils, but they are also a significant source of contemporary dust storms when soil-securing vegetation is disturbed.