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She's watching for true grit: shamals

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 air base.

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 Arabian desert.

"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 a half.

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 stations."

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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