Arizonans up in arms over use of ‘haboob’ in local weather reports

Chris Lehmann

After spending the last year or so in the national spotlight thanks to the harsh enforcement provisions of its 2010 immigration law, Arizona seems to be guarding against undue foreign influence—even in local weather reports.

As Marc Lacy reported in the New York Times, Arizonans are objecting to the way meteorologists have characterized a recent wave of dust storms. The expression drawing fire is the Arab term "haboob," meaning "violent sandstorm."

One correspondent wrote in to the Arizona Republic earlier this month to complain that "I am insulted that local TV news crews are now calling this kind of storm a haboob. . . . How do they think our soldiers feel coming back to Arizona and hearing some Middle Eastern term?" Another letter in the Republic chastised weather correspondents for neglecting the Southwest's own heritage in embracing the alien moniker. "Who gave you the right to use the word 'haboob' in describing our recent dust storm? While you may think there are similarities, don't forget that in these parts our dust is mixed with the whoop of the Indian's dance, the progression of the cattle herd and warning of the rattlesnake as it lifts its head to strike."

In a sense, though, "haboob" has already played a role in the Arizona's linguistic past. As Royal Norman, a meteorologist with Phoenix news station 3, had explained prior to the recent wave of haboob-baiting, weather correspondents in the region have been making use of the term since the early 1970s. It all began, he recalls, with a researcher in Phoenix named Dr. Sherwood Idso, who published a paper characterizing a 1972 storm as a haboob. Norman notes that Idso also referred to other terms for the violent winds stirring up great walls of sand, including "chubasco" and "Sonoran storm" (both of which share Mexican and Spanish derivations).

Even so, Norman observes, the term didn't really catch on in Southwest meteorological circles until a couple decades later: "It lays dormant, this haboob, until a TV weatherman in the late 90s discovers it and it makes him laugh. So he's all in and like a virus, it explodes in the local media, and before long, it's just one of those things."

At least linguistic purists in the present haboob uproar can still blame the media. Still, as Lacy observes at the end of his Times report, there's a faintly ominous real-world backdrop to the culture-war clamor. Citing the work of Randy Cerveny, a climatologist with Arizona State University, Lacy writes that this latest round of potent—well, let's just call them sandstorms—are in some ways a legacy of the region's devastating housing collapse: "Although ultradry conditions in the desert are considered one cause for the intensity of this year's storms, Mr. Cerveny pointed to another possible factor: the housing bust that left developments half-finished and unmaintained, creating more desert dust to be stirred up."