Port Vila, Vanuatu (PressExposure) October 01, 2009 -- There have been times when the sun is obliterated by dust, in the great southern continent of Australia.
Fine red dust was swept up off the heart of the great continent of Australia and sucked 3 km into the sky, by gale force winds and a deep low-pressure system. The huge dust storm, carrying millions of tonnes of dirt, was the largest storm in the past 79 years.
Dragging up soil from three states, the dust plume grew to over 1500 km long and 400 km wide. Sweeping up 140,000 tonnes of soil an hour, the thick red dust blanketed Sydney, causing the city to be shrouded in a ghostly red light.
As air pollution records were broken and international flights were interrupted, health officials urged people to stay indoors. Air particle concentration levels reached 15,400 micrograms per cubic metre of air, compared to bushfires which only generate 500 micrograms. Visibility was lowered to only 400 metres.
"âAn event like this is extremely rare", said Bureau of Meteorology NSW regional director, Barry Hanstrum.
The storm was generated through an intense cold front moving across drought-affected areas in South Australia and NSW, combining with gale-force winds on its northern edge, stirred up the rust-coloured dust, as it roared east at up to 100km an hour.
Large hailstones were rained down over New South Wales, through the freak weather conditions. It also formed a mini-tornado near Canberra, coinciding with a pair of minor earthquakes in Victoria, plus 21 bush fires in Queensland. "This is unprecedented. We are seeing earth, wind and fire together," said Dick Whitaker from The Weather Channel.
Sydney University soil scientist Stephen Cattle said the storm was stripping valuable topsoil from far western NSW and the lower Lake Eyre basin. "There could be a few millimeters or more of soil lost from the surface",â Dr Cattle said. "Topsoil we canât afford to lose".â
The dust cloud was expected to reach to New Zealand. "The day the country blew into town", is how the Sydney Morning Herald saw it. The dust storm is estimated to have cost millions of dollars in lost productivity.
Freak weather conditions are not unknown in Australia. In 1999 there was a massive ice storm and a wind storm in 1991.
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