To Dust We Shall Return?

Atmospheric Science Students, STS Students

By Lillian Knudtson

Weather affects all people, and it is important for meteorologists to understand a wide range of events to communicate effectively to the public. My capstone is a project designed to dissect a particularly interesting phenomenon, especially to South Dakota. I have chosen to do a case study of a particular dust storm known as a haboob. The storm I am focusing on occurred May 12th, 2022, and it impacted the eastern part of South Dakota. A widespread, long-lived thunderstorm called a derecho created the haboob beginning in the south central portion of Nebraska and traveled north and east towards Sioux Falls. It sustained winds of 80 miles per hour, and the highest recorded winds of the event were 107 miles per hour. This storm is a good example of what is possible and can become a sample case for the future.

Photo of giant reddish-brown dust cloud blowing in from the right side of the image, approaching a playground and a few people watching it.

A haboob is a giant dust storm. It is named after the Arabic word habb, meaning “blown.” This type of storm is most common in the Middle East and Northern Africa, where is it historically arid. But haboobs are also well known in the Southwestern United States and are becoming an occurrence in previously unlikely places as well. Haboobs are created from loose particles that are picked up by strong winds caused by storms like monsoons or derechos sweeping across the surface of the earth. The massive amount of precipitation associated with these events evaporate, which is a cooling process, so cool air called a gust front accelerates out in front of the storm at a fast rate, picking up particles and building a wall of air and dirt. The particles are mostly less than 10 micrometer pieces of dirt, dust, and sand, but they can be as large as a pea, and the wind can pick up other debris along with it. These walls of air and dirt can reach grow to 5000 feet tall and 100 miles wide, and they can move at 60 miles an hour (Eagar, Herckes, Hartnett, 2016). Overall it is a phenomenon that is quite terrifying.

Haboobs can reduce visibility, scratch up vehicles and houses, and cause hazardous health conditions. From 2007 to 2017, there were an estimated 232 deaths from dust storm-related traffic events (Tong, Feng, Gill, Schepanski, & Wang, 2023). Some dust storms can have comparable fatalities to hurricanes and wildfires. New allergens can also come with the storms that people are not used to encountering, which can cause respiratory illness.

Greater awareness of the risks of a dust storm could reduce crashes and save lives. This is important for the safety of the public impacted by this event. Even though haboobs might be a periodic occurrence for some regions of the United States, they can have a worse effect on areas not used to such an event. Infrastructure can be at risk and crops can be destroyed. So the stakeholders range from the public to farmers to insurers.

View of a city with a gray dust cloud behind it, much taller than the city buildings.

This project is not big enough to include the extent of climate change and the future of South Dakota. But it is hard to avoid the subject. Haboobs only occur when there is enough dry soil to be swept up with a strong wind. That means the region is becoming dry enough to support this type of event. It would take more years of observation to try and figure out if this will become a more frequent occurrence for South Dakota. But I can’t help but wonder if we are entering another dust bowl. My capstone will help to better understand these events in this region and future studies can use it to figure out the changing climatology of South Dakota.


Eagar, J. D., Herckes, P., & Hartnett, H. E. (2016). The characterization of haboobs and the deposition of dust in Tempe, AZ from 2005 to 2014. Aeolian Research, 24, 81–91.

Tong, D., Feng, I., Gill, T. E., Schepanski, K., & Wang, J. (2023). How many people were killed by windblown dust events in the United States? Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

My name is Lillian Knudtson and I am an atmospheric and environmental science major at Mines. All my life I wanted to be a scientist. I thought that it would be the best way to help the most people. It was hard to pick what type of science because I had so many interests in high school. I don’t think there was one exact thing that led me to my major. I knew I wanted to go to Mines and then I picked the most interesting subject offered. It has been one of the best decisions I have made as I believe it is the most exciting and public-impacting science of all. I am also a student athlete here. When I am not studying or practicing, I enjoy hiking and knitting and taking care of my plants. I am beginning to improve my photography skills to get better weather pictures.

A young white woman in a pink sweatshirt and pink hat, with the Badlands behind her.

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