Over a three day period in 2009, thousands of tons of dust and debris came together as a storm that would be forever remembered as one of the worst in Australia’s history. Starting on September 22nd and lasting through the 24th, the red storm rolled across the continent and beyond, reaching New Zealand at its end. At it’s peak, the dust plume measured over 310 miles high and twice that in length. The storm was so large that it was visible from outer space. But it wasn’t the size of this storm which drew global attention, it was the color.
The intense reddish-orange color of the dust literally painted everything with a burnt tangerine brush. Even the air appeared to be red, making the landscape appear like something from a Martian settlement instead of an Earthly civilization. During the peak hours of the storm, residents were advised to stay indoors, as dust measurements reached toxic levels.
Dust storms are common in Australia, but they are usually confined to the interior of the continent and have little impact on daily life. This storm however had other plans. In 2009, Australia was in the midst of what was considered one of it’s worst droughts ever. The winter had just ended was the hottest on record. Dry topsoil and sand, loose and pliable, were easily captured in the prevailing winds and many dust storms had been observed over the year. In this instance, wind speeds exceeded 60 mph and the combined factors worked in conjunction to concoct this amazing red storm.
In a typical dust storm, sand and small bits of soil are whipped up into the air, but fall back to earth due to their weight within a few hours. The very small particles can stay trapped in the air for up to a week, and once airborne travel wherever the wind takes them. Airborne dust particles are known as dust aerosol and can get so thick that they can shade the earth, or in this case, tint the area red. The sunlight, unable to penetrate the cloud, is instead reflected throughout the cloud, enhancing the reddish-hue.
The storm originated in Southern Australia where there is very little vegetation and the soil is mostly weathered ferric rock. The iron made the clay in the area orange colored. The lack of moisture and intense sunlight made the clay flaky and powdery, hence the perfect red colored dust to be lifted and moved.
The aftermath impacted the economy of Australia in multiple ways. Widespread respiratory illnesses, asthma attacks, and other breathing related issues were reported for both man and beast. High winds accounted for power failures and property damage. Agricultural areas suffered tens of millions of dollars in damages and the loss of top soil was projected to be felt for many years after, mainly with lower yields for row crops.