Caught in a Dust Storm

27 September 2009
Posted by Chris Smith.

For this week's news, we caught up with Chris Smith shortly after his return from Australia...

Chris -   I was in Australia because I went there to give a talk in Brisbane which is at the conference and that which it's about halfway up the east coast of Australia.  And then I flew down to Adelaide, which is down in the bottom in the middle of Australia, to give a talk there and to do some interviews for some people.  Dust storm at the Gold Coast AustraliaThen I went over to Sydney to see some friends of ours at the ABC, the Australian equivalent of the BBC.  And I woke up on a Wednesday morning and I thought I've gone mad.  Because when you first wake up, you're not sure if your brains are actually playing tricks on you?  When I woke up in the room, it was orange.  No.  There's something funny about this and I went back to sleep.  And I woke up again about 10 to 15 minutes later, and now the room really is orange and I thought the city was on fire.  This funny colour that was coming into the room and I ran to the window and I looked out and I couldn't see the end of the street.  The whole street was bright, orangey red and the cars were orange.  It was like a very dense fog but bright red.

And it turns out that what was happening was a very big storm over central Australia and the south part of Queensland, the state higher up the coast of Australia above Sydney had whipped up enormous amounts of top soil.  And the top soil in Australia is very rich in iron oxide - rust, and that's why it's very red.  And in fact, when measurements were made, it turns that this storm was dumping 75,000 tons of dust...

Ben -   Wow.

23 September 2009 MODIS Terra satellite image of dust storm over the eastern Australia.Chris::  ...into the ocean every hour, that it was blowing this 600-mile long dust storm across Sydney.  Sydney was right in the path of it.  It did clear by lunchtime on Wednesday but I just heard from my friend Robin Williams who presents the Science show - the flagship Science Show in Australia and he said the dust is back today...

Ben -   Oh no!

Chris - ...and this time it's brown.  Not very nice and it presumably comes from a slightly less ionic oxide, rich bit of Australia this time.  But certainly wary, they've never seen anything like this for more than a hundred years.

Ben -   The photos I've seen were very incredible.  It must have been very surreal.

Chris -   It was pretty weird when normally, the temperature there should be nice and high.  It should be clear and sunny and to be driving to work in that.  And it was very unpleasant because it got into other buildings and you'd be sitting trying to have a conversation with somebody and every time you took a breath in to sort of breathe to speak, you'd feel this sort of cloying heaviness in the back of your throat because it was so dry, and it was very unpleasant.  Lots of people ended up going to hospital with respiratory problems being exacerbated by the dust.  The one benefit though was it actually made riding in the lift, which was air-conditioned.  A lot more pleasant because it was the one place where the air was actually okay.

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