Agriculture may contribute to dangerous dust storms

PHOENIX — Powerful dust storms that carry whirling dirt and debris are common occurrences across parts of Arizona and the arid Southwest during the spring and summer months. A day after a massive dust storm swept across an Arizona highway, killing three people in a 19-vehicle pileup, experts say the state isn't alone, across the country or the world, in its susceptibility to such a weather phenomenon.

Twelve other people were injured the 19-vehicle pileup on Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson on Tuesday.

Crews brought in portable lights as they worked past sunset to pry apart the 10 commercial vehicles, seven passenger cars, one tanker and one recreational vehicle that were involved, Arizona Department of Public Safety officials said.

Television footage showed at least one car pinned between two 18-wheelers and others wedged under big rigs near Picacho Peak in south-central Arizona. Henry Wallace told KPHO-TV he got out of his car just in time before the chain-reaction crashes began.

"One truck hit another truck. Cars start piling into each other, and they pushed that one truck right into me and off to the side of the road," Wallace said. "I couldn't see anything because the (dust) was so thick, but I could just hear it, 'Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.' "

Africa's Sahara desert and parts of the Middle East are often hit with powerful dust storms, also called haboobs derived from the Arabic word haab, which means wind, because of dry conditions and large amounts of sand.

In the U.S., experts say dust storms also occur in arid parts of the country, often in agricultural regions that have been manipulated through soil tilling and crop planting that leave the ground disturbed and more easily picked up by winds.

Over the decades, dust storms have occurred in Arizona, California's Central Valley, New Mexico, and in agricultural areas of Oregon, Idaho, Texas, Utah, Washington state, Kansas and elsewhere.

"I certainly believe that a lot of this can be tracked to human activity," says National Weather Service Meteorologist Ken Waters, who has spent years studying dust storms. "We typically don't see that sort of dust in parts of the desert where it's just mountains and the area hasn't been disturbed."

Small, fast-moving dust storms, like the one Tuesday in Arizona, can be caused simply by high winds sweeping across dry desert terrain.

These types typically dissipate quickly but can often be the most dangerous to drivers who have little warning and find themselves stuck amid zero visibility on crowded highways.

Larger dust storms can be formed when air is forced down from the atmosphere and pushed outward by an approaching thunderstorm, dragging debris with winds speeds up to 60 mph.

Such storms can create a wall of blowing dust that reaches up to 10,000 feet and blackens out the day sky.

Scientists with the National Weather Service, along with state and private partners, have been working for several years on developing advance warning systems and ways that landowners along busy roadways might help mitigate the severity of such storms.

In 2011, the Arizona Department of Transportation began testing a new dust warning system that takes field readings on weather conditions, humidity and wind speed. The goal is to detect potential dust storms to provide drivers advance warning. ADOT spokesman Dustin Krugel says the agency wants to predict and educate. "There's really no way we can reduce the dust impact. That's kind of beyond our control," he says. "And there's no feasible engineering solutions that we could install to prevent dust from crossing" highways. There has also been discussion of having farmers along major thoroughfares water down dry fields to limit blowing dust.

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