On this day: A mighty dust storm rolls into Melbourne

By Jude Dineley 7 November 2013
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Who could forget the heavy rolling cloud of dust that enveloped Melbourne in 1983.

ON 8 FEBRUARY 1983 at around 3pm, David Clark, a Melbourne archaeologist, saw “this huge cloud rolling in and cover everything… The city basically disappeared”. 

The cloud was actually layer of dry topsoil from the Western Districts of Victoria, which had been whipped up by strong northerly winds. The resulting dust cloud dropped 100,000 tonnes of soil onto the southern city.

For a time the dust reduced visibility to 100m, and the city’s three airports closed. Power to 150,000 homes cut out as winds brought down powerlines and dust short-circuited junction boxes. The storm also uprooted trees and tore the roofs off at least 50 houses. 

RELATED: When dust storms descend

Drought often comes before a dust storm 

This dust storm was the first to be scientifically studied in detail by Australia. Dr John Leys, a wind erosion specialist with the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage in Gunnedah, estimated that the storm stripped up to 3.7 million tonnes of soil from the rich farming land to Melbourne’s west.  

The 500km-wide front of this storm was small compared to the 3000km front that hit Sydney in 2009. But the severity of an El Nino-stimulated drought the year before, combined with the proximity of the Western Districts, which lie 500km west of Melbourne’s CBD, made it much more intense. Visibility during the Melbourne storm was one quarter of that of the Sydney storm, when the dust was able to disperese over 1000km.

Dust storm could strike again soon

Although dust storms are a natural and important part of Australia’s nutrient cycle, John says these events could become more common with climate change.

“We’re worried about more loose, bare soils, and that’s more likely to occur if you have hotter, longer droughts,” he says.