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Incredible images show huge dust storm blanketing Australian towns

An immense wave of red dust engulfed regional Australian towns, turning day to night almost instantly.

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The dust storm approaches Dubbo, a small town in eastern Australia, on Jan. 19.

Andrew Hildebrandt/Twitter

Australia's unprecedented bushfire season has captured global attention, devastating entire country towns and putting the lives of millions of animals at risk.

The extreme fires were, in part, driven by extended periods of drought and while many of the blazes burning across the country have been calmed due to huge rainfall over the last three days, the drought has driven other extreme weather events across mainland Australia.

Thick dust had been accumulating across the interior of the continent since mid-January, captured by NASA's MODIS satellites on Jan. 11. According to NASA, winds were able to lift tiny particles of dust into the air thanks to dry weather conditions. At the time, Patrick De Deckker, a professor at the Australian National University, said it was the biggest dust storm since 2009.

On Jan. 19, a menacing cloud of dust reached New South Wales, hitting regional centers 250 miles (400 kilometers) north-west of Sydney. Images and video of the dust storm have been widely circulated on social media, with users taking to Twitter in the affected regions to show the enormous scale of the encroaching cloud of brown dust.

Driving in to the town of Nyngan, just 100 miles north-west of Dubbo, resident Grace Behsman had to pull over as the storm barreled into her car, turning day to night in a matter of seconds.

Dust also reached Parkes, the site of the iconic radio telescope which beamed images of the first moon landing around the world.

The freak dust storms have been linked to exposed soils, due to a lack of vegetation.

"The dust storms affecting central western New South Wales are a direct consequence of two years of drought and greatly diminished vegetative cover on the soil surface," said Stephen Cattle, a soil scientist at the University of Sydney.

Cattle suggests that a single event may only strip away "a millimter or two of surface soil" but can result in a loss of potential plant nutrients from the soil. Over time, this effect can be compounded, "reducing the productive potential of the land."

He also explains these large rolling storms have been seen frequently after periods of drought. With climate change affecting temperatures and rainfall across Australia, Cattle thinks it "more than likely" Australia will see more frequent dust storm activity like this in the future.

Down under, it has been one extreme after the other in 2020 and, weirdly enough, just a day after the massive dust storms pushed through the outback, it was a completely different story in the Australian capital of Canberra, where golf-ball sized hail was filmed tearing through trees at Parliament House.

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