Big things are made up of many small things. That was especially obvious in September 2009 when extreme winds roared across outback Australia, agitating soil laid bare by drought to produce the giant dust storm known as Red Dawn that engulfed eastern Australia, reddening skies from southern NSW to north Queensland, fanning bushfires, damaging crops, delaying planes, halting construction work, triggering smoke alarms, driving up hospital admissions, smearing windows and walls and seeping inside homes to coat floors and furniture in fine powder.
This herculean event, which elicited comparisons with nuclear winter, Armageddon and the planet Mars, swept on to New Zealand, where it sent asthmatics to hospital and dusted alpine snow. In NSW alone the event cost an estimated $330 million in lost topsoil, crop damage, car smashes, worker absenteeism, cleaning and the closure of Sydney Airport.
The particles behind the strife were so small that 100,000 weighed a mere gram, but they rose up in such numbers that Australia managed to lose more than a million tonnes of soil, broadcast into the Tasman Sea and sprinkled over New Zealand. The drama surprised the nation, but Red Dawn was by no means the first onslaught of dust to hit the east coast and it won’t be the last. In the inland, they’re more common: the most recent in Bedourie, western Queensland, when day turned to night last December and dust enveloped the town for more than 90 minutes. Australia is one of the great dust-producing lands, the main source in the southern hemisphere. If Australia faces a drier future, it will be a dustier one as well.