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Dealing with dust storms

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Dust in your ear holes, dust in your eye.
Dust in those knickers you hung out to dry…

Whilst many coastal and bush land communities suffered the ravages of fire and flood this summer, some rural Australian towns suffer under the blanket of giant dust storms that can turn day into night and envelop everything in their path.

We spoke to Sarah Chamberlain, Director of Little Diggers Preschool and Childcare in Lightning Ridge, to find out how they deal with the dust storms, what they do to keep children safe and how they foster a positive mindset.


Lack of rain is drying out plants and topsoil across huge areas of country Australia. When conditions are right, the dry red dust gets picked up by wind gusts and carried hundreds of kilometres across Australia and even out to sea.

Towns like Lightning Ridge and Broken Hill in NSW are being swept by these giant dust storms more than once a month, all year round. Up to 15 dust storms were recorded across 2019 in these areas.

“You can feel a dust storm coming,” says Sarah. “The air feels heavy and thick – just like that pressure or tension when a storm is coming. You can see this dark cloud on the horizon – at first you hope that it will bring rain. When you realise it’s dust you have to quickly pack up all the outside areas, get all the children inside and close all the doors and windows.

“The children are ‘wired’, some of them understand what’s happening but many are confused. We put on the air conditioner and do indoor activities all day.”

A dust storm rolls in to Nyngan. Image by CELA regional learning & development specialist Nic Jenkins.

 

It’s the cumulative effect of the long drought, severe water restrictions and the increase in the number and severity of dust storms that weighs people down, says Sarah.

Dealing with the aftermath can be demoralising.

“We spent hours sweeping the red dust from the windows, doors and outdoor furniture after the last dust storm,” shares Sarah. “If you’ve left anything out on the washing line you just have to re-wash. Some people can’t be bothered to clean away the layers of dust from their doors and window sills because it will just get covered with dust again when the next one comes.”

While the dirt and residue left by dust storms can be annoying and disheartening, it’s the growing health concerns that are most worrying. Doctors are reporting a rise in the number of adults and children with asthma. This rise has been apparent even among people who previously had no difficulty breathing. Signs of difficulty breathing include: chest tightness, wheezing, coughing or shortness of breath.

Being pro-active

“One thing you’re hit with is the reality that water is so precious,” says Sarah. “We need to look after it because we rely on it so much. We’ve been doing activities to learn about how important water is for survival and the need to save water.

“For outdoor play in the mud kitchen we fill the water container that has measuring markings inside and the children are told that’s the only water they will get all day. We’ve also done experiments to show how plants need water to live.

“We also find ways to focus on kindness, gratitude, being grateful for what we do have. We want to support the wellbeing of the children and educators so we can be there for each other through the challenges that people face.”

How Dust Storms Form

For dust storms to form, the soil needs to be dry and exposed.

Then you need strong winds that can pick up the soil and carry it across long distances. Just how powerful the wind needs to be depends on the size of the dust particles, but the minimum speed is about 30 kilometres per hour.

The storms are more likely to form if there’s an unstable atmosphere that can lift the dust into the air.

Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) forecaster Jonathan How told ABC News that a classic example of an unstable atmosphere occurs ahead of a trough or a cold front, where air is rising, or before thunderstorms.
And the dust is likely to stay in the air and travel if there are dry conditions

Mr How says if the atmosphere is moist, there’s a greater chance of seeing the dust particles condense into clouds or rain — or the dust could join together and become too heavy to be carried by the wind.

 

Precautions to take during a dust storm

  • Stay indoors as much as possible, particularly if you are at risk of health problems.
  • Close the windows, doors and vents.
  • If possible, stay in an air-conditioned room.
  • If you have to go outside, wear a mask over your mouth and nose to prevent you from breathing in dust. A P2 or P3 mask, available from a hardware store should be effective.
  • Avoid exercise, particularly if outdoors.
  • Be aware of any children with asthma or other conditions and their action plan or treatment plan.

(Reference: Dust Storms | healthdirect)

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