AZ Sandstorm & STS-135

A few days ago, back on July 5th, a different type of storm caught the weather headlines.  No it wasn't another outbreak of tornadoes or widespread flooding.  And although it is still rather early in the hurricane season, it was not the formation of a threatening tropical system bearing down on the coastline. Instead, the culprit was a combination of strong winds on the backside of a line of thunderstorms that inundated Phoenix and surrounding suburbs in a cloud of sand.  Let me first illustrate below what caused this sandstorm to develop.

Severe storms had passed to the south of Phoenix and were heading away from Tucson. A minor correction, the storms were tracking to the SW.  There were a number of reports of wind gusts in the range of 60 to 72 mph in association with the storms.

As the storms moved one direction, a downburst of wind on the backside of these storms blew back toward the northwest.  Considering how dry Arizona has been as of late, combined with the simple fact that the topography of the southern part of the state is mainly desert, this produced a wave of sand that began pushing toward Phoenix.

As the sandstorm rolled into Phoenix just before 8pm MT, it was obviously an ominous looking site.  Just think of a wave of sand/dust heading right in your direction.  Check out a time lapse of the sandstorm rolling into the area along with the radar loop of the outflow boundary of the sandstorm hitting Phoenix.

You might have heard the name "Haboob"  being used to describe this type of weather phenomena. The term comes from Arabic, translating to mean wind, which in the Middle Eastern & African desert climates, strong winds with a vast amount of sand around can easily lead to sandstorms.  Here in North Central Wisconsin, there are a few times a year when we have our own mini-dust storms due to dry fields, plus gusty winds.  A prime place to experience this is along I-39 south of Stevens Point.  Here there are numerous fields which run parallel to the road.  If there is a dry stretch of weather and winds are blowing strongly either out of the west or east, you'll run into this wall of dust along the highway.  The good news is these type of conditions may only last for a 1/4 to 1/2 mile, but no less, it can be just as dangerous as locally dense fog in that visibilities can be greatly reduced.  The same held true for this sandstorm in Arizona.  Not to mention vehicles being covered in sand or dust, and surely the air filter in your car would be in desperate need of being replaced afterwards.  For more on the Arizona Sandstorm, head over to the NWS Phoenix website.

Meantime, STS-135, Space Shuttle Atlantis is scheduled to lift off on Friday morning from Kennedy Space Center in Florida.  This shuttle will be the last to launch into space.  It is surprising that this mode of space transportation has been used now for nearly 30 years.  Obviously, many milestones have been achieved throughout the missions, from piecing together the International Space Station, to deploying the Hubble Telescope, to the many scientific experiments that were completed in zero gravity on the shuttles themselves.  It is sad to see the shuttle program come to an end, but hopefully in the years ahead, a more efficient, safer, and longer distance traveling space transporter will be put into service.  Obviously we've been to the moon, but what about venturing out to other planets in our solar system?  At the same time, will it ever become financially feasible for someone not having over a hundred thousand dollars laying around to be able to go into space by private or commercial flight?  I think the time will come that this will be true, but it is probably going to take more advancements in technology and an obvious decrease in the cost to arrange such a journey.

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