Many Kenyans were on Tuesday caught by surprise by the unexpected strong winds and dust storms that hit parts of the country and left behind a trail of destruction and even caused power outages.
The Kenya Meteorological Department’s Principal David Koros on Tuesday described the strong winds and dust storms as a precursor to the short rains expected this month, adding that they might be experienced for a few days before they subside, giving way to the rains.
But the phenomenon is not the first to be experienced in the country.
In October 2017, witnesses described a similar event in Emali along Mombasa Road.
Photographs shared online showed vehicles engulfed in a thick red cloud of dust while the road seemingly disappeared in the haze.
The same was recorded in Marsabit County in April the same year.
As this occurrence is expected to continue in the days ahead, here are a few facts you need to know about dust storms.
A dust or sand storm refers to a high amount of wind occurring in sandy areas, usually in deserts, where the wind speed is able to lift the top layer of sand or dust from the ground and push it in all directions.
They can last as long as a few minutes or up to an hour.
According to World Meteorological Organisation, sand and dust storms usually occur when strong winds lift large amounts of sand and dust from bare, dry soils into the atmosphere.
They are usually caused by strong pressure gradients associated with cyclones, which increase wind speed over a wide area.
The winds lift large amounts of sand and dust from bare, dry soils into the atmosphere, transporting it hundreds to thousands of kilometres away.
How dangerous are dust storms
In Nairobi, several billboards were torn apart by the strong winds and there were reports of trees falling over in Lavington, Syokimau, Githurai, Jogoo Road, the central business district and Parklands.
The strong winds can blow away dust particles, debris, roofs and unstable structures, which can fall on people who have not taken shelter.
The dust particles in the air also causes reduced visibility for motorists and pedestrians which can lead to accidents while driving, injury and death in extreme cases.
Dust storms damage crops and remove the fertile top soil, which reduces agricultural productivity.
According to United Nations Environmental Programme, much of Iraq’s fertile lands have been literally blown away as desertification intensifies.
The dust particles also cause respiratory disorders.
According to the World Meteorological Organisation, dust often gets trapped in the nose, mouth and upper respiratory tract, thus can be associated with respiratory disorders such as asthma, tracheitis, pneumonia, allergic rhinitis and silicosis.
They also cause breathing problems in people with asthma.
The current strong winds will be experienced in Nairobi, Central Kenya and Machakos among others.
This occurrence is rare in Kenya. But it is common in the arid and semi-arid parts of Africa like Egypt, Algeria, Mali, Chad and Mauritania among others.
According to AccuWeather website, dust storms also occur in the south and southwest of the United States, especially in dry and flat regions like Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, California and Arizona.
According to a UN Environment article, the Iraqi government recorded 122 dust storms and 283 dusty days in a single year. Within the next 10 years, Iraq could witness 300 dust events per year.
How to protect yourself in a dust storm
Kenya Meteorological Department Deputy Director Samwel Mwangi has urged Kenyans to take precautions as the strong winds might be experienced for a few more days before they subside, giving way to rain.
According to Urgence Québec website, the following steps should be taken in the event a windstorm occurs near you:
- Take precautions – Find out about weather warnings in your region. Cut and gather dead tree branches which may fall on your house during the storm.
- Shelter in a building – Take refuge in your house or a solid structure that can withstand the strong winds. Stay away from doors and windows as they can be broken by debris blown by the strong wind.
- If you cannot take shelter in a building, take refuge in a ditch or any other depression in the ground. Lie face down on the ground and protect your head with your hands. Protect your ears, nose, mouth and eyes with any kind of clothing you may have. Avoid taking shelter under a bridge or overpass as these may fall down and injure you.
- According to AccuWeather, if you see a dust storm ahead when driving, never drive into it.
- If you encounter a dust storm while driving and cannot avoid it, check the traffic around you, that is in front, behind and both sides and slow down.
- Pull off the road as soon as possible, before visibility is too low and turn off lights, take your foot off the accelerator and set the emergency brake.
- Stay in the vehicle with your seatbelt fastened and wait until the storm passes.