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Dust Devils Are Also Known As Nevada Tornadoes

Updated on February 28, 2012

Examples of Dust Devils Or Nevada Tornadoes

A dust devil in Arizona.
A dust devil in Arizona. | Source
Dust devils on a street in Krakow, Poland. These  pictures were taken in 2008.
Dust devils on a street in Krakow, Poland. These pictures were taken in 2008. | Source
A rather large dust devil, they sometimes can be large and sustained for a period of time.
A rather large dust devil, they sometimes can be large and sustained for a period of time. | Source

Dust Devils Are Similar To Tornadoes

When I found out we were moving to Nevada, I looked into the weather here out of curiosity, and found out that they do not have "traditional" tornadoes here, instead they have "dust devils" or whirlwinds comprised of wind and dust. Oh great. Maybe I'll get picked up off the ground by one of these things and say " Toto, we're not in Nevada any more" and maybe I'll see a tin man and a scarecrow... and is that a WIZARD behind that curtain? Ok, so I have too active of an imagination, I'm the first to admit it.

Instead, my husband and I were waiting at a stoplight on a Las Vegas street one VERY hot day last summer, and all of a sudden we were surrounded by this WIND, very windy, but it didn't last too long... my husband being quick on the automatic windows closed them pretty quickly, and by the time this wind stopped, the car was almost covered in various debris! Pieces of leaves and dirt and sand and who knows what else that it had picked up along the way.

I remember asking my husband "what was THAT?" He told me it was "just a dust devil." They are actually kind of "cute" from a distance, like a mini tornado. They whirl and swirl and kick up some dust and debris, and **poof** just as quickly as they show up, they are gone!

I looked to find information on these phenomena of nature that I had never seen before (living in Wisconsin before we moved here to Nevada, I don't think we had them - although at times, there would be some leaves blowing in a circle, maybe that was something similar). I found out that dust devils are most often formed and seen on hot dry sunny clear days, when a swirling updraft of heated air causes them. They are very common here in the Mojave desert in Nevada, and even on the streets in Las Vegas.

They compare to tornadoes in that they are both swirling masses of air that is rotating vertically. But, in a dust devil the air is going upward, because of the tendency of heat to rise. And the good thing is, a dust devil rarely ever reaches the intensity of a tornado, and therefore doesn't do as much damage as a tornado can do. Although, there was one dust devil that happened at a fairgrounds in Arizona that caused some temporary tent structures to collapse, causing some damage. That one happened in the year 2000. But, it was memorable for being one of the very few dust devils that has caused damage. usually, they are pretty harmless.

Here in the Southwest United States, they are a pretty common occurrence. They go by several names, one being "dust devil" and others being a "dancing devil" or a "dirt devil." And me being as brilliant as I am, I bet the vacuum cleaner dirt devil got its name from the similar swirling action, and picking things up along its path. I could be wrong... just sayin...

There have been stories among Indian tribes, especially the Navajo, that these dust devils are actually spirits of deceased. And if the whirlwind is spinning clockwise, the spirit in it is said to be a good one, if it spins counter-clockwise, the spirit in it is evil. These dust devils can show up in desert areas all over the world, and each place they show up, they have different names. In Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, they are known as djin, which loosely translated means "genies" or "devils."

In Iran, they are called "round wind" and in Egypt, they are called "ghost wind." Whatever name they go by, they are normally reserved for desert locations and wide open spaces. When they do occur in a city on a street for example (like the one we saw), they are known as "Nevada Tornadoes."

A Dust Devil In Front Of The Red Rock Casino In Las Vegas, Nevada

A dust devil beginning in front of the Red Rock Casino, this picture was taken when the casino was still under construction.
A dust devil beginning in front of the Red Rock Casino, this picture was taken when the casino was still under construction. | Source

Dust Devils Start Most Often In Flat, Barren, Desert Terrain

Beginning in flat, barren, desert like terrain is one of the hallmarks of dust devils, but they can also occur in a town and on a street. They begin to form when hot air near the ground (when the ground is hot) begins to rise quickly and goes through a pocket of cooler air, it then starts to swirl and become a whirlpool shape and quickly rises higher as more hot air is brought up from the ground. It takes on a funnel like "chimney" shape and rises as new hot air enters it.

The sidewalks are hot enough in the summer here in Las Vegas to fry an egg, so it stands to reason that the hot surface is very effective in adding "fuel" to the developing dust devil. Most of the residents here seem to take it in stride. We saw some people waiting for a bus that simply turned their backs to the swirling wind as it approached, then it was quickly gone and moved on... over OUR car! It really was pretty neat though.

Once the dust devil encounters a pocket of cooler air, or if it hits a cooler spot of ground, it disappears as quickly as it began. Dust devils begin quickly and usually are small and weak. When they do take on momentum and become stronger they can cause damage, but that (fortunately) rarely happens.

Now I did read along the way that there are dust devils on MARS! Nasa has actually filmed them there. I wonder if they picked anybody up on Mars and dropped them off here... here in Las Vegas... that might explain some of the strangeness on Fremont Street. Anyone that has ever BEEN to Fremont Street in Las Vegas knows exactly what I mean. Very strange happenings there, and some life forms that could possibly border on alien....just sayin'!

I also learned that dust devils not only pick up sand and dirt particles, they can also produce radio noise and electrical fields too... that would explain some other things I guess. Winds can reach speeds of 60 mph, but the most damaging dust devils recorded reached speeds closer to 75 mph, or the speed of an "F-0" tornado.

There is also another closely related phenomena that can happen during a fire. During periods of the most intense heat, the fire can begin to "swirl" in a manner similar to a dust devil. In that case, they are destructive. The same thing can also happen in snow, called a snow whirlwind, which sometimes occurs in places like Canada.

Next time I see a dust devil I hope to have a camera along with me, it would be interesting I think to capture pictures of these as they are happening, although they usually happen so quickly I'd have to be pretty quick with that camera! I will try though, and I'll share them here if I am ever lucky enough to get some good pictures.


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    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 6 years ago

      Thank you for the education on this natural occurrences. I have wondered what they were and this answered my questions. I have seen similar "snow devils" up north, as you mentioned in your article, and they are awesome to see. Yes, please do post pictures of your experiences with these desert twisters. Enjoyed your hub.

    • KathyH profile image

      KathyH 6 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      Wow, that was quite an experience, BobMonger! I had never heard of these until our car was surrounded that hot day, thanks for sharing your story! :)

    • BobMonger profile image

      BobMonger 6 years ago from Carlin, Nevada USA

      Call them what you will; dirt devils, dust devils, wind willies (australia) or desert twisters, they are a lot more common than one might think. Out here in the desert they pick up anything loose (sticks, dirt, grass) and take it for a ride, making quite a cloud as it rolls along. But I've seen the same thing in the mountains of Utah and Nebraska hay fields. Without some debris in the air they are nearly invisible. We had a winrow of hay magically "come to life" because of a "hay devil" crossing the fields we'd cut the day before. We never knew it was there until we were engulfed in a blizzard of new mown hay.

    • KathyH profile image

      KathyH 6 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      Thanks SGBrown for your thoughtful comment and great vote! I bet they do have dust devils in Oklahoma too, driving through there on our way out here I could see how they could happen! :) Have a great Feb. 29th! I totally did NOT realize this year was a leap year! ;) It escaped me somehow!

      Thanks for your comment too, Moonlake! I can just imagine kids jumping in dust devils! I would have done it as a kid! Thanks for stopping by, I appreciate it!

      And thank you Pamela99! I bet Arizona has some pretty big dust devils, lots of open land there! Thank you for your thoughtful comment! :)

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 6 years ago from United States

      This was a very informative hub. One time a few decades ago we were traveling and encountered one of these in Arizona. We had our children in the car so when we saw it coming we pulled off the road and sat in the car until it ended which was about 20 minutes. It was little frightening to be but it my boys didn't get upset at all. Rated up!

    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 6 years ago from America

      When we lived in El Paso, TX we use to jump in the dust devils, we called them dirt devils. We only jumped in the small ones but my Mom was never very happy about that. We were kids having fun. We walked to school in some of the wind storms. I can still remember how the sand hurt our legs, we had to wear dresses to school back than. Enjoyed your hub.

    • sgbrown profile image

      Sheila Brown 6 years ago from Southern Oklahoma

      Excellent hub! We had a lot of dust devils when I lived in El Paso, Texas. I still see one every now and then here in Oklahoma. They are kind of neat to watch. Yes, I know exactly what you mean about Freemont Street! Great hub, voted up and interesting. Have a wonderful day! :)