An orange glow blanketed Sydney today as gale-force winds whipped up one of the city’s largest dust storms on record, shrouding the Opera House with a choking powder, disrupting traffic and forcing airlines to divert flights.
“It’s like a nuclear winter morning,” Peter Wilson, 53, a visitor from Queensland state, said at Circular Quay in central Sydney as fog horns echoed across the harbor. “It is so eerie.”
The Harbor Bridge was hidden by a thick haze as the early morning sun struggled to pierce the blanket of dust blown in from the dry interior of the continent. Train commuters, some wearing masks or clutching handkerchiefs to avoid breathing in the dust, stood on the platform snapping photographs of the spectacle on their mobile phones.
The Bureau of Meteorology issued a severe weather warning for wind gusts as fast as 90km an hour, while the New South Wales state government said air quality in parts of the city was “hazardous.”
Schools were advised to keep pupils indoors and keep a close eye on students with asthma, the New South Wales state Education Department said. Sports lessons were canceled.
Ferry services on the harbor resumed after being suspended and high winds and low visibility disrupted flights at Sydney airport, with some aircraft diverted to Melbourne and Brisbane.
“I haven’t seen dust storms like this since I was in China a few years ago,” said solicitor Jim Harrowell, 55, as he stood in the financial district, where office windows were clogged with dust. “We’re lucky it’s not raining, otherwise there would be little red spots all over us.”
Yachts on the harbor, usually gleaming white, had a dull yellowy sheen. Drivers shuffled slowly over the Harbor Bridge, their windscreens smeared and filthy.
The cloying dust left many residents of Australia’s most populous city tight-chested with a metallic aftertaste in their mouths as they made their way to work through the haze.
“There is a smell of dust in the air and there is this eerie orange glow in the sky,” Barry Hanstrum, the Bureau of Meteorology’s regional director for New South Wales, said by telephone from Sydney.
The storm was caused when an “intense north low pressure area” formed and generated gale-force westerly winds which “picked up a lot of dust from the very dry interior of the continent,” Hanstrum said.
The orange cloud, possibly the city’s worst dust storm on record, may remain over Sydney and the rest of the state for the remainder of the day, he said.
Qantas Airways Ltd., Australia’s largest airline, said in a statement there were “severe delays” to all flights at Sydney airport, with all international arrivals in the city diverted to Brisbane or Melbourne.
Today’s horse racing at Canterbury Park in the city’s southwest was abandoned because of the weather, the Sydney Turf Club said.
The state ambulance service said it had experienced an increase in calls from asthma sufferers and some were taken to hospital, the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper reported.
Oakdale, in the city’s southwest, recorded a level of 1,719 on the Department of Environment’s air quality index. A reading of 200 and above is considered hazardous and people with heart or lung disease, the elderly and children should avoid exercising outdoors, according to the department’s website.
The state fire brigade experienced a 10-fold increase on its usual call rate as the dust tripped automatic fire alarms and smoke detectors, spokesman Graham Kingsland said.