She's watching for true grit: shamals
By JOSEPH OWEN
The Stars and Stripes
Middle East bureau
EASTERN SAUDI ARABIA -- U.S. troops may be ready to repel a military
invasion from Iraq, but they can't do much about another kind of assault
originating there - dust storms known as shamals.
Such storms only occur every four or five years, but they can last several
days. They ground air traffic because of reduced visibility, and blow
sand hard enough to strip paint off cars, according to an Air Force meteorologist,
Capt. Judy Dickey of the Air Force's 1st Tac Fighter Wing.
The Jan. 15 deadline the United Nations set for Iraq to withdraw from
Kuwait falls in the midst of the five-month season when shamals and lesser
forms of turbulent weather are the most common near the Persian Gulf coast,
she said. Watching for such storms is one of many duties the 25-year-old
native of Anaheim, Calif., performs as a forecaster at a coastal Saudi
Shamals occur when a strong low-pressure front or cold front moves out
of the Mediterranean Sea, across Syria and into Iraq. The wind accelerates
and picks up dust as it moves southeast across the hard, featureless Saudi
"There's a large area of surface heating to give it energy - kind
of like a hurricane gets the heating from the ocean and all that dryness,"
Dickey said. "And then there's no obstruction. It just comes sweeping
down the peninsula towards us.
"Basically, it would shut down operations at any base that was affected."
Meteorologists won't be able to detect a shamal any sooner than three
days ahead of its arrival, she said. Although such a storm is not as strong
as a hurricane, it could force postponement of military assaults.
U.S. military meteorologists know that shamals have the greatest impact
in Bahrain and in Saudi Arabia near the Persian Gulf coast. They reach
wind speeds of up to 50 mph, blowing strongest in the afternoon, and can
create haze up to 18,000 feet. They subside before reaching the southern
part of the Arabian Peninsula. Beyond that, data about them are scarce.
"We just don't have enough information on what would cause one.
We thought Christmas Day was going to be the onset of one, (but) it was
too weak," Dickey said. The Christmas storm was enough to stop air
traffic at her base, however.
Another dust storm Friday reduced visibility to a mile near the coast
and a half-mile inland, preventing takeoffs and landings for an hour and
Dickey, who holds bachelor's degrees in aerospace engineering and meteorology,
is familiar with the Saudi weather patterns, because she began studying
them as part of her duties at Langley AFB in Hampton, Va., before Operation
Desert Shield began.
In Saudi Arabia, she provides regular reports on cloud level, visibility,
temperature, wind, altimeter settings, pressure altitudes and pew point
to pilots, Patriot missle crews and units involved in the defense against
nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. During bad weather, she updates
those reports every 20 minutes.
"Anything that comes over these circuits is open. It's not classified
or protected in any way. So if they were to send it to us, they'd be sending
it to everyone," she said, adding that the information might help
Iraq decide whether to launch a chemical attack.
The Saudis don't collect much weather information anyway, she said. "The
weather here 300 days a year is beautiful," Dickey explained. "They
have no weather problems at all. So they just don't have that many weather
Also, she said, although the Saudis bought sophisticated equipment to
track weather, a shortage of technicians prevents them from being able
to fix it when it breaks. U.S. meterologists still can anticipate wind
patterns by studying major weather systems, however, and they collect
data from weather balloons and pilot observations. Different service branches
share weather data through the regional Army and Air Force headquarters.
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