Dangers of monsoon dust storms: what you need to know

“Pull Aside, Stay Alive” is the key to staying safe during dust storms this monsoon.
Published: Jun. 15, 2023 at 10:36 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) -With the start of Monsoon 2023, people can expect to see flooding, thunderstorms, and lightning, but an often-underrated part is dust storms.

“The danger is that dust storms can pop up so quickly in Arizona and move so quickly,” said Garin Groff, the Arizona Department of Transportation public information officer.

While dust storms are common in the early part of the monsoon, they can occur at any point during the season. This unpredictability can put drivers in a dangerous situation.

“You can have a clear blue sky and 20 minutes later it looks like a sci-fi movie. You know this wall of doom moving toward you. That dust can blind drivers and make it impossible to see what’s ahead of you,” said Groff.

In addition to low visibility, these storms bring strong winds and can travel miles.

“The outflow winds can be 30,40, 50 miles an hour. Near the thunderstorm, they can even be stronger than that,” said Ken Drodz, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service Tucson. “But as they get farther away, they may decrease some. Those dust storms can travel many miles from the parent thunderstorm that caused the initial winds.”

There are several areas in southern Arizona that can be a safety concern for drivers.

“Traveling during the monsoon, especially in these areas, such as the I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix and also parts of eastern Cochise County on the I-10, can be treacherous when large areas of blowing dust are picked up by this thunderstorm outflow winds,” said Drodz.

But ADOT has a dust detection system to help those traveling. In 2022, it was activated 23 times, with the longest activation lasting 23 minutes.

“We have devices in a 10-mile corridor that constantly scan for visibility. If dust reduces the visibility to a certain amount. Variable speed limit signs will drop the speed limit from the regular 75 miles per hour to as low as 35 miles per hour,” said Groff.

And if drivers do find themselves in this situation, there are several things they can do to stay safe.

“Our message is pull aside, stay alive. Pull your vehicle off the roadway. Turn your engine off, turn your lights off, take your foot off the brake and wait the storm out,” said Groff.

Groff also advises people not to race against the storm.

“Don’t get in a fight with Mother Nature. These storms are very powerful. They can be fast, unpredictable. It isn’t worth it.”

For more information on how to stay safe on the roadways during a dust storm this monsoon, visit the Arizona Department of Transportation website here.

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