14 March 2014

NWS Use of the Word Haboob Sets off Firestorm In West Texas

Posted by Dan Satterfield

A haboob is a type of severe dust storm. The word has been in common use for at least 60 years, and it dates back to the 1920’s in the Sudan. The word itself is Arabic in origin, and the American Meteorological Society atmospheric science dictionary defines it thus:

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(Many variant spellings, including habbub, habub, haboub, hubbob, hubbub.) A strong wind and sandstorm or duststorm in northern and central Sudan, especially around Khartoum, where the average number is about 24 a year.

The name comes from the Arabic word habb, meaning “wind.” Haboobs are most frequent from May through September, especially in June, but they have occurred in every month except November. Their average duration is three hours; they are most severe in April and May when the soil is driest. They may approach from any direction, but most commonly from the north in winter and from the south, southeast, or east in summer. The average maximum wind velocity is over 13 m s-1 (30 mph) and a speed of 28 m s-1 (62 mph) has been recorded. The sand and dust form a dense whirling wall that may be 1000 m (3000 ft) high; it is often preceded by isolated dust whirls. During these storms, enormous quantities of sand are deposited. Haboobs usually occur after a few days of rising temperature and falling pressure.

Sutton, L. J. 1925. Haboobs. Quart. J. Roy. Meteor. Soc.. 51. 25–30.

The rest of this rather sad story started when the NWS warned Lubbock residents that a haboob was approaching (and by the way, it was a doozy).

Screen Shot 2014-03-13 at 9.09.08 PMWhen the meteorologist for Lubbock TV station posted the NWS warning on the station’s Facebook page(see below), he set off a firestorm, not a Haboob.
Warning: The image below links to the KCBD Facebook page and most of my readers will consider some of the comments to be very offensive (if not worse).

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I am not going to print the comments here (They would be considered very offensive, or worse by most people), but suffice it to say there were many complaints about using an Arabic word for a Texas weather event  (When you quit laughing, read on). The station later interviewed Jody James, the Warning Coordination Meteorologist for the NWS, who patiently explained that this term has been in common use around the world since at least 1951. He also pointed out the Arabic origin of many English words like Algebra, etc. (Most of the brighter stars in the sky have Arabic names because early Arabic astronomers named them).

There was no mention in the article of the melt down on the station Facebook page, (or the demands for a station employee to be fired). I can assure you that scientists and the NWS will continue to use scientific terms, no matter what their origin, even the Spanish word “TORNADO!”

It will be interesting to see if KCBD in Lubbock will, and I can’t help but wonder how some of those folks in Lubbock feel about The Weather Channel naming the last winter storm VULCAN??

I’ll pass on that mind meld..