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Column: Rain can create dangerous conditions in desert
Rudi Kiefer

I had envisioned a picturesque desert drive on that trip a few summers ago. Crossing from Arizona into Nevada with my wife in a rented convertible muscle car, there should have been scorching sunshine, dry, dusty desert air and a blue sky vibrating with heat.

Instead, our rooftop was closed, the windshield wipers were struggling against pounding rain, and lakes of water accumulating on the highway made driving hazardous. In Kingman, drainage ditches looked like small rivers.

But it doesn’t rain in deserts, does it? Yes, it does. The country of Oman in the Middle East just experienced this last week when tropical cyclone, or hurricane, Shaheen made an unexpected entrance. Oman is at the eastern end of the Saudi-Arabian Peninsula, about 600 miles across the Arabian Sea from the state of Gujarat, India. Farther up the Oman coastline is  the capital city Muscat, home to a population near 2 million. With summer highs up to 120 degrees and total annual precipitation of four inches (Gainesville: 54”), one doesn’t expect torrential rains. But “when it rains, it pours” is characteristic for deserts. 

Cyclone Gulab had formed on the other side of India, in the Bay of Bengal, on September 24 and followed windflow from east to west. According to conventional science, Gulab should have run out of fuel (the heat stored in its water vapor) while crossing the vast land mass of the Indian subcontinent. But its spiraling winds only slowed to the 30 mph range. Upon reaching India’s west coast in Gujarat State, Gulab acquired new hurricane strength, a new ocean basin and a new name. In the early afternoon (Oman Time) of October 3, the storm made landfall as hurricane Shaheen in Al-Masnaah, a town comparable to Gainesville in population and just 50 miles from Muscat. 

Desert ground gets dense and hard during rainless months. Its dry, hot condition cannot produce rain, but it can aggravate the turbulence when a tropical system, highly loaded with moisture, moves in. Videos of severe rain and gale-force winds appeared on the internet immediately. The worst effect, though, was the flooding. Desert soil doesn’t easily let water soak in. The rain ran off in tall flash flood waves, sweeping away cars and unfortunate people. Shaheen’s force may or may not have been a byproduct of climate change. But it sure demonstrated the power of a hot ocean meeting a hot desert.


Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor emeritus of physical science at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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