What causes sandstorms and how to react if you encounter one on the road

Weather
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(ABC4) – Several people were killed and over 10 were injured as a result of a sudden and rare sandstorm that caused a 22-car collision in Millard County over the weekend.

ABC4 Pinpoint Weather meteorologists explain that a sandstorm can begin with little warning as a result of a thunderstorm – sometimes even from miles away – and can be as difficult to manage on the roads as a full-blown blizzard.

“This is such an incredible tragedy, and Utah weather played such a serious role. My heart goes out to all those impacted,” Chief Meteorologist Alana Brophy states.

As Brophy mentions, the circumstances that facilitated the incident had much to do with the weather that has been impacting the state all summer, namely the record-setting drought.

Due to the extremely dry soil moisture, dust and sand particles were easily picked up by the 32-mile per hour wind gusts caused by a thunderstorm in the area, resulting in near-zero visibility at the time of the crash.

“It becomes similar to a blizzard,” Meteorologist Cesar Cornejo explains. “In the middle of an interstate, it’s a dangerous situation. Most people in Utah know how blizzards can be very blinding just because of blowing snow or heavy snowfall with winds, but sand can do this same exact thing.”

Sandstorms are typically more common in areas like West Texas or Arizona, and are known as “haboobs,” Cornejo explains. The conditions need to be perfect for a dusty blizzard, either a cold front or a thunderstorm needs to strike in a particularly dry area. Of course, in the middle of an especially brutal Utah summer, a thunderstorm would be the primary requirement and that was the case over the weekend.

While the thunderstorm that picked up the dust in Millard County was near the collision site, Brophy explains sandstorms can sometimes occur miles away from the thunder, lightning, and rain.

“An outflow boundary is extremely similar to smashing a water balloon onto concrete, the wind spreads out in all directions as it hits the earth’s surface,” she says. “It’s often referred to as a gust front and happens when air diverges from the downdraft of the thunderstorm toward the surface. These winds can travel miles from their spot of origin, so a thunderstorm does not have to be overhead for you to be impacted.”

Getting caught in a sandstorm can be unexpected, so knowing what to do beforehand, especially when behind the wheel, can make the difference between life and death.

Utah Department of Transportation officials have provided the following instructions for how to react when experiencing a sandstorm on the road:

• ⁠If you encounter a dust storm, immediately check traffic around your vehicle (front, back, and to the side) and begin slowing down.

• ⁠Do not wait until poor visibility makes it difficult to safely pull off the roadway – do it as soon as possible. Completely exit the highway if you can.

• ⁠Do not stop in a travel lane or in the emergency lane. Look for a safe place to pull completely off the paved portion of the roadway.

• ⁠Turn off all vehicle lights. You do not want other vehicles, approaching from behind, to use your lights as a guide and possibly crash into your parked vehicle.

• ⁠Set your emergency brake and take your foot off the brake.

• ⁠Stay in the vehicle with your seat belt buckled and wait for the storm to pass.

• ⁠Drivers of high-profile vehicles should be especially aware of changing weather conditions and travel at reduced speeds.

Being ready and having a game plan before disaster strikes is the best way to avoid tragedy, Cornejo recommends.

“Always know the forecast and understand that with the threat of a thunderstorm you always have that possibility of a downburst of a microburst that can spark these dust storms,” he suggests. “ Be mentally prepared of what to do in that situation and how to best take action.”

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