Red mist blankets Sydney as dust storm blows in

A huge outback dust storm swept across eastern Australia today, leaving most of New South Wales, including Sydney shrouded in a thick red cloud of dust.

Flights were diverted and Sydney's iconic ferries were suspended as city dwellers woke to red, apocalyptic skies with visibility down to a few feet, and thick dust coating cars, buildings and beaches.

The emergency services were inundated with calls from people fearing a major bushfire in the city while dust particles triggered scores of fire alarms and, in one Sydney train station, an emergency evacuation.

Further inland, the swirling dust blacked out the outback mining town of Broken Hill, forcing one mine to shut down. An intense low pressure system sweeping NSW from central Australia brought wild winds that whipped up tons of dust from the state's drought ravaged interior, spreading it over the entire state.

The extraordinary weather conditions also fanned several bushfires across NSW.

"This is unprecedented. We are seeing earth, wind and fire together," said Dick Whitaker from the Weather Channel.

The blanket of dust stretched hundreds of miles along the coast and inland from Sydney, coating towns from Canberra to Newcastle and reaching as far away as Brisbane in Queensland, 620 miles north of Sydney.

Barry Hanstrum, regional director of the Bureau of Meteorology said the cloud could reach New Zealand, 1200 miles away.

"There's a fair chance that it will keep going out into the Tasman Sea and it won't dissipate quickly,'' he said.

"They may see some effects of reduced visibility as far east as New Zealand.''

“An event like this is extremely rare,” Mr Hanstrum said. “It's one of the worst, if not the worst.”

Callers to ABC radio likened the scenes to the end of the world.

A housewife from Sydney's inner west said she woke up to find the red dust had covered her floors and birds had been blown out of their nests.

"It did feel like Armageddon because when I was in the kitchen looking out the skylight there was this red, red glow coming through," she told the ABC.

Officials said particle pollution in Sydney's air was the worst on record, and the New South Wales state ambulance service said it had received more than 250 calls before midday from people suffering breathing problems.

Most people remained inside all day; a 10 minute walk in the dust left commuters complaining of headaches, sore eyes and clogged sinuses.

Inland, as rainstorms swept in, the rain fell as mud over cars and houses. One caller told local radio; "I have a green car and it's now an orange car. The wipers are barely able to cope with all the mud."

Dust storms are not uncommon in Australia, but for the most part are restricted to the drier inland areas. However during widespread drought, they can affect coastal districts when high winds whip up the loosened topsoil from the outback and carry it over the country.

One of the most spectacular storms occurred in Melbourne in 1983 when a dust storm that extended across the entire width of Victoria covered the city with a 20 mile (320 m) deep cloud of dust.

It was estimated at the time that 1000 tonnes of topsoil that had been stripped from inland Victoria was dumped on the city in just a few hours.

In a day of wild weather across Australia today, hailstones as big as cricket balls slammed into the town of Crookwell near Goulburn, in NSW damaging windows and tiles.

Two small earthquakes measuring 3.0 and 2.6 on the Richter scale rattled Melbourne, although there were no reports of damage.


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