More Frequent Dust Storms Could Be in Our Future – Scientific American

The thick dust cloud formed in minutes, engulfing part of Interstate 55—Illinois’s main thoroughfare between Saint Louis and Chicago—in blizzardlike whiteout conditions on May 1. Drivers slammed on their brakes but not quickly enough. Car after car collided, leaving seven dead and the mangled remains of 72 vehicles lining both sides of the highway.

For a tragedy like this to occur in the Midwest, a perfect storm of factors must come together, says National Weather Service meteorologist Chuck Schaffer, who tracked the imposing wall of dust on satellite imagery. In this case, straight-line winds swept across crop fields near the interstate just after farmers plowed them, loosening topsoil that was left unusually dry by weeks without rain.

That combination of circumstances doesn’t happen often, which means that dust storms are rare in Illinois. But researchers warn that with the effects of climate change and the ever expanding agricultural industry, such storms could be a growing problem across the Great Plains and Midwest. That concern has even led some scientists to consider whether the country’s heartland is tumbling into a new Dust Bowl.

The original Dust Bowl in the 1930s was the worst drought in U.S. history, which caused unprecedented dust storms and devastated agriculture.
“These were storms that eroded hundreds of millions of pounds of topsoil and spread dust as far as New York City,” says Benjamin Cook, a climate scientist specializing in land surface change and drought at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

The intensification of agriculture—tilling prairie to plant corn and wheat—helped drive the original Dust Bowl, Cook has shown in his research. In the wake of the calamity, the government’s Soil Conservation Service took major steps to improve practices that had degraded the soil. Farmers now rely heavily on irrigation to keep dust under control. But experts say today’s conventional agriculture practices still leave soil at risk.
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