A pall of red dust blown in from the Outback clogged the skies over Sydney today, diverting international flights, disrupting public transport and prompting a spike in emergency calls from people suffering breathing difficulties.
No one was reported hurt as a result of dust storms sweeping a vast swath of eastern Australia, but officials closed ferry services on Sydney Harbour because visibility was cut to dangerous levels, and police in two states warned motorists to take extra care on the roads.
Such thick dust is a rarity over Australia's largest city, and came along with whiplashing winds and other uncommon weather conditions across the country in recent days. Hailstorms have pummelled parts of the country this week, while other parts have been hit with an early spring mini-heatwave, and wildfires.
"It did feel like Armageddon because when I was in the kitchen looking out the skylight, there was this red glow coming through," Sydney resident Karen told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.
Dust storms were reported today along Australia's heavily populated eastern coast, from Ulladulla, south of Sydney, to Brisbane, about 620 miles north. Other areas in the southeast were hit earlier this week.
The storms - visible as a huge brown smudge in satellite photographs of Australia - are the most severe since the 1940s, experts said.
International flights to Sydney were being diverted to other state capitals because of visibility problems caused by the dust. Three flights from neighbouring New Zealand were turned back from Sydney, Air New Zealand spokesman Mark Street said.
Qantas, Australia's national airline and biggest international carrier, said it expected severe delays throughout today.
Officials said particle pollution in Sydney's air was the worst on record today, and the New South Wales state ambulance service said it had received more than 250 calls before midday from people suffering breathing problems.
People with asthma or heart or lung diseases were urged not to go outside and to keep their medicine inhalers handy.
"Keeping yourself indoors today is the main thing to do if you have any of those conditions and particularly if you're a known sensitive sufferer such as children, older adults or pregnant women," said Wayne Smith, a senior state health official.
Sydney residents coughed and hacked their way through their morning commute, rubbing grit from their eyes. Some wore masks, wrapped their faces in scarves or pressed cloths over their noses and mouths.
The dust descended on Sydney overnight, carried by powerful winds that snatched up tons of topsoil from country's drought-ravaged inland and threw it high into the sky. As dawn broke, sunlight struggled to penetrate the dust cloud, casting an eerie red glow over the city and prompting scores of calls to local radio stations.
"These dust storms are some of the largest in the last 70 years," said Nigel Tapper, an environmental scientist at Monash University, noting that one dust storm this week blew as far away as New Zealand some 1,400 miles away.
Drivers in the southeast of Queensland state, including the capital of Brisbane, switched on their headlights Wednesday and police warned them to slow down as dust darkened skies there. The winds also fanned at least one major wildfire in the area.
Forecasters said winds carrying the dust were expected to weaken later today.