The science behind dust devils

They look cool, but they can be dangerous.


Cynthia McKelvey

Internet Culture

Published Nov 2, 2015   Updated May 27, 2021, 5:20 pm CDT

Today on the aptly named subreddit r/woahdude, someone posted a GIF of a dust devil—and we aren’t talking about the vacuum cleaner.

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After watching this GIF, you might be wondering: what the heck is a dust devil?

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Dust devils are pretty common in certain areas. They’re basically tiny tornadoes that can pick up dirt and debris.

Dust devils only form when the conditions are right on dry, warm days that are usually clear and calm. Some part of the ground must heat up faster than the surrounding area, creating a pocket of very hot air. When that hot air rises, it collides with the cooler air above.

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If this process occurs in just the right way, it can create a swirling vortex of hair capable of picking up light debris.

Dust devils range in width between around 10 and 100 feet and usually stand about 650 feet tall. They can do some mild damage to property and can even hurt people by swirling debris into eyes, noses, and mouths.

The lesson here: Dust devils can be dangerous. If you ever see one, it’s best to avoid getting very close.

Photo via NASA

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*First Published: Nov 2, 2015, 5:59 pm CST