An orange haze engulfed much of the country from morning to nightfall on Tuesday, as Israelis experienced the nation’s worst sandstorm in the past 15 years.
Considered extremely unusual for this time of year, high levels of dust plagued most of the country, with the most alarming measurements recorded at monitoring stations in Jerusalem, the Environmental Protection Ministry said. The dusty weather conditions, according to the ministry, were the heaviest and most polluting to overtake the country in the past decade and a half, and were the result of storms originating in northeastern Syria.
“Heavy haze is unprecedented for this time of year,” said Dr. Amos Porat, head of the Climate Department at the Israel Meteorological Service.
Temple Mount covered in dust
“Although significant haze occurs every year, this usually happens in the winter and spring, and originates mostly from the southwest – the deserts of North Africa and Sinai.”
As a testament to the exceptional nature of the event, Porat said there had been no reports of such significant haze in early September since the country began recording weather measurements 75 years ago. The Syrian sandstorms, which have been raging in the neighboring country’s deserts in recent days, spread to this region, driven by northeasterly winds at a low altitude, Porat explained.
Due to the high levels of dust, the Environmental Protection and Health ministries warned sensitive population members – such as those with heart or lung disease, the elderly, children and pregnant women – to avoid strenuous activity. The ministries also advised that school pupils take similar precautions and refrain from workouts.
By about 2 p.m., the two ministries went so far as to recommend that sensitive population members stay inside entirely in certain areas: the Golan Heights, the Upper and Lower Galilee, Jerusalem, Gush Etzion, the Jordan Valley, the eastern Negev Desert and the Arava Desert. The recommendations were based on the fact that dust particle levels were more than five times the Environmental Protection Ministry’s “alert values.”
A few hundred patients – mostly sufferers of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease resulting from smoking and asthma – were hospitalized on Tuesday for inhalation of dust particles.
All in all, more than 300 people suffered from serious side effects from the dust storm, Magen David Adom reported. The emergency medical organization said it had treated 160 people with shortness of breath and asthma attacks, 40 people who had fainted and more than 90 people whose hearts had been overburdened by the particles.
At Ziv Medical Center in Safed, chronically ill patients suffered shortness of breath and needed oxygen inhalation.
At least one was admitted to the intensive care unit in very serious condition, and a six-year-old boy was brought from his first-grade class with breathing difficulties.
One of those admitted with respiratory problems due to the dust was Ya’acov Wald, an 80-year-old member of Kibbutz Shamir whose daughter, nurse Anat Levy, gave him first aid before taking him to the hospital. His problems began at 4 a.m. in bed, as the dust particles seeped into his bedroom. He was given oxygen and kept for supervision.
Emergency room director Dr. Yosef Nevia said that such unusual weather – in which the dust was so intense that it was hard to see anything from a distance – was highly dangerous to people with respiratory problems and heart conditions, as well as to children and pregnant women. He urged such individuals not to go outdoors, and not to exert themselves physically if they did.
Dust particles in the air may cause high blood pressure, difficulty breathing and the allergy-related production of phlegm. There may also be cough, headache, asthma attacks and a burning sensation in the eyes, Nevia added.
Throughout the day, levels of PM10 – particulate matter with a diameter of 10 microns or less – far exceeded typical daily averages on a non-stormy day, which rest around 60 micrograms per cubic meter, according to Environmental Protection Ministry data. As of about 4 p.m., the average PM10 concentration for the last 24 hours at the Jerusalem monitoring station was 3,372 micrograms per cubic meter, with the maximum concentration climbing to 10,280 micrograms per cubic meter at 11 a.m., the data said.
The Arad station showed average and maximum values of 2,400 micrograms per cubic meter and 9,031 micrograms per cubic meter respectively, with the maximum occurring at 12 p.m. In Karmiel, the average was 894 micrograms per cubic meter, and the maximum was 3,129 micrograms per cubic meter at 3 p.m. Similarly, average values in Afula for the 24-hour period hovered at 829 micrograms per cubic meter, rising to a maximum of 3,239 micrograms per cubic meter at 2 p.m.
Due to the heavy haze, the Israel Airports Authority announced the closure of the Eilat Airport at around noon. Arkia Airlines canceled all of its domestic flights for the day as a result, offering passengers refunds for their tickets and seats on buses to and from Eilat, per availability.
In addition to the incessant dust, Israelis also felt sharav (heat wave) weather conditions on Tuesday in the mountains and inland, as well as mugginess along the coast, IMS data said. Temperatures climbed to 34-36 degrees centigrade in the northern mountains and valleys, and 37-39 degrees in the Jordan Valley and Arava Desert. The coastal plain experienced temperatures of 32-33 degrees, with humidity levels of 70-75 percent, while areas along the beach were a bit cooler at 31 degrees but with worse humidity at 85%, the IMS data added.
Unseasonably warm conditions will likely continue through Thursday, with the dust gradually settling by that time, IMS forecasts said.
By Friday, the service predicted, there will be a light drop in temperatures but continued high heat stress in most regions nonetheless, with a slight additional decline on Saturday.
While the Environmental Protection Ministry officials likewise said that the hazy conditions would fade gradually, they warned that dust levels would remain high on Wednesday.
The ministry reiterated that those with heart and lung disease, as well as the elderly, children and pregnant women, should not stay in the open air and should avoid strenuous physical activity.