Thursday, September 24, 2009

Sydney glows red under outback dust storm

A huge dust storm yesterday enveloped Sydney, forcing flights to be diverted, closing roads and prompting a health warning from doctors and government officials. The city, famous for its spectacular harbour views, woke up to an orange blanket causing poor visibility. Residents declared they had never seen anything like it before - one described it as like waking up on Mars. The Sydney Harbour Bridge was shrouded, making it invisible from most vantage points.

Strong winds had swept the outback dust into the Australian capital Canberra on Tuesday and other parts of the country are familiar with the red storms, but it is extremely unusual for Sydney to be hit in such a way.

Bureau of Meteorology spokeswoman Jane Golding said gale force winds from the northeast of New South Wales had whipped up the dust from Australia's drought-stricken interior and spread it across the country's most populous state.

"This dust is acting like a cloud layer," said Ms Golding. Several international flights were diverted to Brisbane 550 miles away and ferries, which usually carry commuters into Sydney's city centre, were cancelled because the reduced visibility could lead to collisions. Motorists were warned to take care during the busy rush hour.

Asthma sufferers were advised not to go to work, and early morning joggers were told to take a break for the day. "People who have any breathing issues stay inside and keep the windows closed," said New South Wales Emergency Services Minister Steve Whan.

It capped an extraordinary day of wild weather across Australia, with heavy rain producing flooding in Adelaide, and hail stones as big as cricket balls hit the town of Crookwell in New South Wales. Meanwhile in Queensland, fire-fighters were tackling ten bushfires, with dry and dusty conditions sweeping the state. And as if that was not enough, two small earthquakes, one registering 3.0 on the Richter Scale, struck near Melbourne causing minor damage.

Dust storms are not unusual in Australia, which is the world's driest inhabited continent. However, they are normally restricted to the inland areas, only reaching the coast during widespread drought. Australia is battling one of its worst droughts and weather officials say an 'El Nino' is slowly developing in the Pacific which will mean drier conditions for eastern states.

The country is one of the most vulnerable nations to climate change, but also the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter per capita, as it relies on coal-fired power stations for the bulk of its electricity.

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