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Illinois dust storm pileup explained: Did climate change affect it? - USA TODAY

Illinois dust storm pileup explained: Did climate change affect it? – USA TODAY

The National Weather Service office in Springfield, Illinois, issued a blowing-dust warning Monday for the first time ever after a blinding dust storm sprang up south of Springfield, Illinois, causing a deadly highway pileup. It may not be the last such warning the office issues.

The crashes killed at least seven people and injured dozens Monday morning. The highway didn’t open again until Tuesday.

The horrific crashes involved 40 to 60 passenger cars and multiple tractor-trailers, two of which caught fire. At least 30 people were taken to hospitals with injuries, and Montgomery County authorities said 10 helicopters were called to the scene in addition to a hazardous materials team to suppress fires.

Climate change researchers have warned of an increase in such events for years.

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Though it’s unclear to what extent climate change may have been involved in the Illinois storm, climate models show the United States probably will see more such storms as rising temperatures dry the ground and rain becomes less frequent.

Hotter, drier weather coming

A crash involving at least 20 vehicles shut down a highway in Illinois, Monday, May 1, 2023. Illinois State Police say a windstorm that kicked up clouds of dust in south-central Illinois led to numerous crashes and multiple fatalities on Interstate 55.

Dust storms of course are nothing new to farmland.

“In general, dust storms in agricultural areas are not uncommon and will arise during strong wind events if the topsoil is dry and if the soil is bare. These conditions occur during a drought and before vegetation starts growing, including in early spring,” said Jasper Kok, a professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. Kok studies climate interactions and wind-blown sand and dust.

But more such storms may be on the horizon.

In 2017, scientists projected climate change will increase dust activity in the southern Great Plains from spring to fall because of reduced rain, more bare lands and increased wind speeds. In the Central Great Plains, higher temperatures that dry out the earth contribute to an increase in dust concentrations.

“You have high temperatures and less water based on changing precipitation rates, so that could cause an increase in the likelihood of dust events, said Bing Pu, a professor of geography and atmospheric science at the University of Kansas, who has modeled the influence of climate change on dust storms.

That was exactly the scenario that played out in Illinois.

What caused Monday’s deadly dust storm in Illinois?

Monday’s dust storm was caused by soil dried out after “well-below-normal precipitation,” and wind gusts of nearly 45 mph that blew dust from a freshly plowed field near the interstate, said Chuck Schaffer, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Lincoln.

The result was “zero visibility,” he said.

“The top layer of soil was dry and had been worked over from plowing, so it was easy to blow around,” Schaffer said.

Rainfall was well below normal in April, including a deficit of nearly 2 inches in nearby Springfield. Because of that, he said, the weather service had mentioned the possibility of blowing dust in some of its outlooks and discussions. 

The climate change link to dust storms

A crash involving at least 20 vehicles shut down a highway in Illinois, Monday, May 1, 2023. Illinois State Police say a windstorm that kicked up clouds of dust in south-central Illinois led to numerous crashes and multiple fatalities on Interstate 55.

One way climate change is contributing to dust events is new rainfall patterns, said Natalie Mahowald, a professor of atmospheric science at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, who studies dust events.

Records show that even in areas where the average rainfall hasn’t changed, when it rains has changed. There are longer periods between rain events, leaving soils more time to dry as temperatures rise.

Average daily temperatures in Illinois have increased by 1 to 2 degrees, according to the state climatologist. Overnight minimum temperatures have increased more than daytime maximum temperatures, and winter and spring temperatures have increased by 2 to 3 degrees.

“Before you might have two weeks between rains, and now we’re getting three weeks between rains,” Mahowald said as an example. “To keep down dust generation, it’s really the very top of the soil that needs to be wet, but it dries out very quickly. This is something we expect more of under climate change.”

USA TODAY InvestigationOur warming climate is having a dramatic impact on precipitation. What does the data tell us about your state?

Is this a sign of another 1930s Dust Bowl? No.

In the 1930s, the Dust Bowl was a period of severe dust storms that devastated croplands across the prairie states. It was caused by several factors, including a prolonged drought and newly opened agricultural lands that had never before been put to the plow.

The intensive plowing and tilling of land unsuited to that type of agriculture and the destruction it caused was an alarm for farmers and led the Department of Agriculture to set up the Soil Conservation Service, said Rob Myers, a professor of agriculture at the University of Missouri.

Multiple factors caused the Dust Bowl, Pu said. Economic factors also worsened the problem. Severe drops in crop prices caused farmers to abandon their farms, leaving bare soil behind.

There was no irrigation, so there were many abandoned fields without any vegetation protection, which made it susceptible to wind erosion,” she said.

To fight the dust storms that blew millions of tons of topsoil from fields, farmers learned dryland growing techniques and planted thousands of miles of trees as windbreaks, which helped stop the shifting of soil.

“I grew up on a farm roughly 30 miles from where the accident happened in Illinois,” Myers said. “We had windbreaks planted on average every half mile. They were osage orange trees that were planted in the 1930s.”

Unfortunately, agricultural practices espoused by then-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz in 1973 calling upon American farmers to plant “fencerow to fencerow” meant most of them were bulldozed out. Myers’ family removed theirs in the 1980s.

That’s beginning to change. Today farmers are once again conservation-minded and taking the threat of climate shifts seriously, Myers said. Modern methods include using no-till crops to avoid breaking up the soil, planting cover crops to hold in moisture, and once again planting windbreaks.

“If there’s any good news in this terrible story, it’s that there’s more funding than ever before from both the government and the private sector to help farmers try out and adopt additional conservation measures.”

Extreme heat waves may be our new normal, thanks to climate change. Is the globe prepared?


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