Posted by: JeffMasters, 8:58 PM GMT on April 13, 2011

A massive sandstorm enveloped Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq today, bringing air traffic to a halt and shutting down oil exports from Kuwait. The sandstorm hit Kuwait City between 5am and 6am local time, and by 6:30am, visibility had plunged to 200 meters (656 feet) at Kuwait airport, under a stiff north wind of 20 mph and a temperature of 74F (23C). The sandstorm hit Basra, Iraq at the same time, dropping visibility to just 50 meters (164 feet) at the airport.

Figure 1. An intense sandstorm spread dust over northern Saudi Arabia, southern Iraq, Kuwait, and northwards across Iraq to the Caspian Sea in this image taken on the afternoon of April 13, 2011. The nation of Kuwait is entirely covered by dust plumes in this image. Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory.

The dust storm began on April 12, when the cold front trailing from a low pressure system moving across southern Turkey brought very strong westerly winds to Syria, kicking up huge amounts of suffocating dust. At 11am on April 12, winds in Damascus, Syria were 37 mph, gusting to 52 mph as the cold front passed through. As the cold front progressed to the southeast over Syria and Iraq, it kicked up additional dust from the deserts. The cold front and associated dust storm hit Baghdad, Iraq between 6pm and 7pm local time on April 12, with visibility plunging to 50 meters at the airport under northwest winds of 20 mph.