I sorta figured this would happen while I’m here.

“What’s that?”

A shamal.

“What the heck is a shamal?”

Well, let’s define it here. It’s a strong northerly wind that picks up dust from Syria and Jordan and carries it all the way down the Arabian peninsula.

And it’s shamal-ing right now as I type this. The winds are gusting to 40 knots from the northwest, and the dust came down all the way from Syria — we watched it on the satellite! I even saw the wall of dust towards the northwest minutes before the winds started here, but I was in a no-photography area so I wasn’t able to capture it for you.

(Side note: I have to give public kudos to the forecast team in the U.S. and here at my base for the great job they did predicting its onset here. They said it would arrive by noon, and it got here at 11:55am!)

I have a couple pictures of what shamal vs. non-shamal conditions look like here, but they didn’t turn out really well. I won’t include them here, but I wish I could have captured how it looks here better.

It looks like fog. That “you can’t see your hand in front of your face” kind of fog. If you’re standing inside looking out into this stuff out the window it looks like a brownish-yellow fog. But the wind is howling…and if you inhale too deeply, you start coughing. If you breathe the air without a cover over your mouth for too long, you feel the grit on your teeth. It smells sort of like chalkboard chalk. Do you remember clapping together blackboard erasers when you were younger? And inhaling that dust for too long? That’s the sensation.

You feel the grit on your hands, in your hair, and on the surface of your skin. I stood outside for 5 minutes waiting for a bus from my duty location back to my dorms and could feel how dirty my hair was in that short time. Again, remember how chalk dust feels on your hands after you’ve dusted off the excess. A fine grit.

If your eyes aren’t covered, the dust gets into the eyes and it’s difficult to see as your eyes get watery. I have goggles for my eyes and am carrying around a small towel to cover my mouth.

I was talking to a British fighter pilot today right when the storm started and in a typical British no-holds-barred fashion, he gave gory details about where on our person we’d be finding shamal dust remnants for days after the event ends. I can’t wait.

It becomes hazardous to do things outside in these conditions. As if the winds and reduced visibilities aren’t enough of a problem, the respiratory hazards associated with prolonged inhaling of this dust can be a problem too.

Even though I’m inside right now typing this (I am usually outside where the WiFi is stronger), there’s still a layer of dust settling on my keyboard, and the table on which my laptop is sitting.

A shamal event wreaked havoc on the coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003. For you weather weenies, here’s a paper about the meteorology of the shamal that impacted the “march to Baghdad” in late March ’03. There are arguments to this day about the amount of advantage coalition forces were able to gain from the duststorm, but I’m not going there.

So it’ll be interesting to see how I feel when this is all done, and how long before I blow all the dust out of my nose, clean it out of my ears, and wash it out of my hair.