What causes the UAE's sandstorms and are they dangerous?

Everything you need to know about sandstorms and the potential health risks

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The UAE often experiences sand and dust storms that reduce air quality and hamper visibility on the roads.

A dust alert was issued over the weekend as visibility dropped to below 500 metres in parts of the country, with many people waking up to thick clouds of dust in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Flights bound for Dubai International Airport were diverted to neighbouring airports because of poor visibility while police warned motorists to be vigilant while driving in the hazy conditions.

And the dusty conditions are expected to continue over the coming days with winds of up to 40 kilometres an hour expected in parts of the country.

As the dusty weather continues, sandstorms are likely to become more regular. But why? And do they potentially pose a risk to public health?

Sandstorms sweep across the Gulf

Sandstorms sweep across the Gulf

How common are sandstorms?

In the UAE, sandstorms are certainly not unusual. They most often hit during the summer and in turbulent weather, such as during the transition from winter to spring, when rising temperatures cause strong winds. The rate of storms is expected to increase with the effects of climate change, according to a report published in 2017.

More extreme sandstorms are usually reported elsewhere in the region, in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Iraq, where there are strong north-westerly winds.

During the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide ― all pollutants released by vehicles ― dropped, in some cases by as much as 70 per cent.

But a recent study in the Emirates found the air was more polluted owing to an increase in concentrations of tiny particulate matter in the air in the east of the Arabian Peninsula, including the UAE.

That resulted from an unusually active period of dust storms caused by north-westerly winds.

RAS AL KHAIMAH, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, APRIL 2, 2015. At the pedestrian crossing, the sandstorm hits hard today in Al Hamra Village. Photo: Reem Mohammed / The National   *** Local Caption ***  RM_20150402_RAK16.jpg
A sandstorm in Al Hamra Village, Ras Al Khaimah. Reem Mohammed / The National

What are sandstorms made of?

A lot more than sand. The storms can carry pollutants or even viruses and bacteria.

“You could have a sandstorm here and the impact on what is carried on the sand or in the sand is completely different,” Ruqaya Mohamed, section manager of air quality, noise and climate change at the Environment Agency Abu Dhabi, told The National.

“The sandstorm could have the same origin, but depending on where it passes, by the time it reaches your place or my place it carries all sorts of things along the way," she said.

Sandstorms typically contain silica crystals, as well as viruses, bacteria, dust mites, fungi and even plants. They have been blamed for spreading meningitis spores across Africa. The storms can also transmit viruses such as influenza, scientists have said.

Some experts have said the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak in the UK was caused by a large storm in North Africa, which may have carried the spores to the north of the UK a week before the first cases were reported.

Who is at risk of becoming ill?

The American Thoracic Society has said sand particles can be inhaled, but are usually too large to be deposited in the lungs, so they generally become trapped in the upper airway.

As a result, upper airway and mucus membrane irritation is the most common health problem.

People who suffer from allergies or asthma suffer most. Fifteen minutes of exposure to even small particles can increase the potential of suffering from asthma symptoms.

But anyone with a weakened immune system, including the elderly and pregnant women, are more at risk of being infected by viruses or bacteria contained in the dust.

Dubai, UAE, April 2, 2015:

A large sandstorm is sweeping through the country, leaving poor visibility on and off the roads. 

Building were barely visible in TECOM.

Lee Hoagland/The National *** Local Caption ***  LH0402_WEATHER_0005.JPG
A large sandstorm swept through the UAE in 2015. 

What should I do in a sandstorm?

If you can, you should stay indoors until it passes. If not, wear a mask or use a wet towel to protect yourself against inhaling dust particles.

Running an air purifier indoors will help. Doctors say it is also important to stay hydrated.

Why do UAE sandstorms not look like the ones on TV?

The UAE's location and climate does not tend to expose it to the extreme winds found elsewhere.

Forecasters say most of the storms that reach the country originate from the dried-up marshlands of Kuwait or Iraq, but they usually blow themselves out before they reach the Emirates.

Instead of a fast-moving wall of air, as seen in Dubai in Hollywood film Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, the sand is suspended.

Can anything be done to improve air quality in the UAE?

Abu Dhabi has expanded a programme aimed at improving air quality in the emirate.

Experts from the environment agency have joined the World Health Organisation’s Global Air Pollution and Health Technical Advisory Group. They now sit on two working groups – one focused on dust, sand and health, and the other on policy interventions.

It is hoped the knowledge gained in the groups can help the emirate to continue to make strides to improve air quality.

A screenshot from Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol showing the sandstorm scene. Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Sandstorms in the UAE are rarely as visually dramatic as the storm seen in Dubai in 'Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol'. Paramount Pictures