The atmosphere on Mars is quite dusty, containing particulates about 1.5 µm in diameter which give the Martian sky a tawny color when seen from the surface. When the Martian poles are exposed to sunlight at the start of summer, frozen CO2 sublimes creating enormous winds that sweep off the poles as fast as 400 km/h. These seasonal actions transport large amounts of dust and water vapor, contributing to the largest dust storms in our Solar System. These can vary from a storm over a small area, to gigantic storms that cover the entire planet. They tend to occur when Mars is closest to the Sun, and have been shown to increase the global temperature.
I woke up this spring morning to discover this view from our hallway, our neighbours' tin roofs and gum trees being battered by 100km/h winds:
At first it seemed like a very odd sunrise. Then we realised the red wasn't a sunrise red, but something duller, earthier. A kind of powdered mineral deep orangey-red, like vermillion or cadmium perhaps with a dash of ochre ... or like dust from the parched interior of Australia, in fact.
Which of course it was, as all your news networks will have told you by now. You can get the fairly extraordinary facts elsewhere, along with numerous first-hand experiences. Here are a series of reflections that occurred to me throughout the day.
Moving downstairs, the odd light was both inside and out, casting everything in an orange haze. I moved over to my Macbook on the kitchen table and was surprised to see that its screen appeared blue. I thought it was broken at first, but realised this too was the effect of the strange orange filter newly overlaid onto the world. This is what the backyard looked like:
Slowly it became clear what was going on. It seemed on the scale of an eclipse. A thin film of dust was on everything, inside and out. Barely any windows had been left open, due to the wind and rain the night before, yet this new microscopic layer could be felt under the fingertips everywhere.
(In a sign of the times) I turn to Twitter to find out what's going on, and tweet a little myself. My friend Tom picks up on it and curates a fantastic set of the images being uploaded in real-time to Flickr. Have a look at that set to see how eerily beautiful the whole thing was. My photos here don't approach them in terms of drama or quality, but are what I saw, and so just as affecting to me.
The dust came from South Australia, via the distant mining town of Broken Hill. The distances involved here are indeed vast. The dust cloud covered half of New South Wales and then stretched 600km up the coast to Queensland, where it would later appear in Brisbane in an altogether yellower guise. It had travelled around 1500km to get to Sydney, dropping millions (billions?) of tons of dust over the east coast.
It's almost beyond comprehension that the dust filling the air is from that far away; that you're inhaling South Australia. It's akin to the notion that you're constantly breathing in detritus from the Big Bang. One's reminded of the scale of the intercontinental weather systems around here, not least the El Nino, which covers almost half of this side of the planet and is probably on its way soon, bringing further extreme weather conditions.
By the time I leave the house, the red colour was beginning to become paler, settling on a glowing sulphurous yellow. The dust picked out the structural supports of a spider's web on our porch and covered the electricity cabinet in the street. All the cars were clearly covered in a thin film. Silver was not a good paint-job for a car this morning.
The air quality was perhaps the filthiest on record. It seemed to have a sulphurous quality to it, but that may have just been projection. But despite this obvious sensory input, people - ourselves included - seemed to be essentially oblivious to the poor air quality and went about our business as any other day. The Herald notes that:
"A normal day would see around 10 micrograms of particles per cubic metre of air and a bushfire might generate 500 micrograms. Today, levels soared to 15,400 micrograms per cubic metre of air at one location."
To the naked eye, the dust appeared to all but dissipate by about lunchtime, yet on closer inspection visibility was still lower than normal. The light in Sydney is one of the most extraordinary things. It's without the blinding over-exposure of Queensland to the north, but is intense, vivid and so richly revealing in terms of colour, detail and texture. Today, it just wasn't there. Even when it appeared to have lifted, look beyond the crisp near distance and Sydney faded unusually quickly.
The word "apocalyptic" comes up in conversation a lot today. Many argue that this particular phenomenon had no formal relation to climate change but many others made a connection nonetheless, given that the Australian interior has been reconfigured by the Big Dry. Sydney often offers up some fairly apocalyptic weather, being a place of natural extremes, but this was something else.
I read a book about dinosaurs to my two year-old son Oliver every night. He loves it all but I'm privately fascinated by the pages describing their (most likely) demise due to an asteroid strike in New Mexico and the resulting giant dust clouds that enveloped the planet, extinguishing the dinos and much else besides, ushering in a near-ice age. It had been 30 degrees a few days ago - unseasonably warm, but it was maybe 15 degrees below that today. The wind was still fierce, and the sun couldn't penetrate the blanket of dust.
The sun in Australia usually gives the impression it could penetrate steel if it wanted to, but here it hung uselessly in the sky, a hazy wan glow effortlessly subdued by the dust. Some fairly spectacular effects emerge as its distant gleam creates transient reflections in some passing car windows, a sudden focal point amidst the pervasive flatness of light elsewhere.
The sudden nature of the dust storm's appearance was one of its most curious, compelling aspects. While a cold front had been expected from the south, there had been no warning of this. It had finally rained the night before, after what seemed like months with barely a drop, and then we wake up to an entirely different landscape. How incredible that no weather forecast had been able to predict something on this scale.
It occurs to me that the microscopic layer of dust has made Sydney marginally taller, bigger this morning. Alexander Trevi suggests that it's more likely that Sydney is slightly sinking.
I'm heading for a workshop in Chowder Bay and a cab drives me out to the north shore. The traffic is horrendous, even for Sydney, meaning a slow crawl over the ANZAC Bridge and then the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Usually the giant structures of these bridges frame views of the perfect blue harbour and the thrusting concrete-and-glass CBD of Sydney. Here they float freely against a backdrop of nothing.
Over in north Sydney, several people in the street are wearing face masks. I was in Seoul last Friday, and had been reminded of the east Asian tendency to wear face masks when suffering a cold. Apparently face masks were flying off the shelves today in Sydney, a good business to be in today, just as tomorrow will be a good time to be in the car wash sector.
My taxi driver is originally from Beijing, and he remarks he'd seen similar sights there a few times, though pointed out that was mostly through pollution rather than dust storms (though it's not immune to those either, blown from Inner Mongolia). When he discovers I lived in London before Sydney, he asks whether the famous London fog has the same quality. He seems mildly disappointed when I tell him those smog-induced fogs don't really happen anymore in London.
Moving over bridges suddenly robbed of their views, it occurs to me how odd it is to see Sydney without perhaps its signature quality - the view. It's one of the most remarkable, rewarding aspects of the city, but here there was apparently nothing beyond the edge of the road, over that cliff, behind those trees. Everything faded rapidly into a flat white haze, a void.
It's not so much a new landscape, but the absence or removal of landscape altogether. The vanishing lines vanish after a few metres. It feels like one of Calvino's Invisible Cities all of a sudden, an impossible construction fading at the edges in all directions. There are echoes of those maps of the imagined Terra Australis, a land searched for in uncharted territory, of an Australia perched on the edge of the world, edges of the map fading into nothingness.
We glide slowly by one of my favourite Sydney buildings, a Metabolist-like housing block just off the east edge of the Harbour Bridge. Usually this is lost in the thicket of skyscrapers behind it. Here, it appears bold in sepia, the previously overwhelming background reduced to faint ghosts hovering over its shoulder.
By the time I'm at Chowder Bay, a former naval base on the north shore set amidst forests of gums, the light has lifted again. Having looked at a map, I'm aware that the spectral trees we're driving past are right on the shoreline. Yet it's still impossible to see the water only metres away.
The website for the venue speaks highly of the view. It's somewhat academic at 9.30 this particular morning.
Yet by lunchtime, the same view looked like this:
The dust storm was over, apparently.
This island continent is an extraordinarily vivid place in terms of naturally-occurring phenomena. Whether the recent weather conditions are "naturally-occurring" or "carelessly invoked" is another matter - though this is clearly drought-related - but the range and intensity of the weather is constantly startling. Sydney is generally blessed with perhaps a perfect climate - a kind of subtle improvement on the southern Mediterranean - yet on days like today Australia seems to be building up to something. And we're still not yet in bushfire season. Then again, tomorrow will probably be just another perfectly crisp, sunny spring Sydney day.
The Guardian dispassionately tacked this onto the end of their bulletin, followed by no comment:
"As dust blanketed the east coast last night, heavy rains lashed Adelaide in the nation's south, flooding streets. At dawn, two tremors shook Melbourne. Later in the day hailstones as big as cricket balls pelted parts of New South Wales. Heavy rain is expected to follow and flash-flood warnings have been issued. While residents in the south brace for rain, Queenslanders are preparing for fires to erupt with the unseasonally dry weather in the far north where firefighters battled several blazes yesterday."
That's Australia. It never rains but it pours, hails, burns, storms, dusts ...