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New study researching if dust storms can be more predictable by analyzing soil

Posted at 4:25 PM, Jun 07, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-08 01:27:43-04

Can dust storms be more predictable?

A group of researchers from the University of Arizona is trying to figure that out by testing different soils throughout the state by measuring how much wind it takes to create conditions that would cause a dust storm.

They hope to show what soils are more susceptible to the damaging storms and where they are most likely to originate.

In the middle of the Arizona desert, tests are being performed. The results of which may save lives when dust morphs into a wall of chaos.

“I-10 is right here, and at many places near I-10, dust storms can develop very quickly,” said Kyle Rine, atmospheric research scientist.

Rine says when that happens, visibility for those on the roads can go to zero quickly.

“There’s a very large potential for wrecks,” said Rine, who's leading a team of student researchers.

But what if experts could predict what regions of the state are particularly vulnerable to those potentially deadly storms by the type of soil in the area?

“So the name of the game is to really get an idea of how soil varies and how that variability affects dust production,” said Rine.

To find that out, ABC15 went to Picacho Peak, where researchers are spinning soil by using a portable wind tunnel powered by two car batteries.

When in place, a rotor inside the device begins to turn.

Rine slowly increased the power until it registered enough wind inside the dome to produce a dust storm.

And it didn’t take long to get a result.

“If a five mile per hour wind at waist height came through here that would be enough to start a dust storm of this soil surface,” said Rine. "But this soil can change daily and even hourly depending on weather events."

He says soil surface can vary dramatically throughout the state, as well as the condition of the soil.

“The moisture of the soil, the relative humidity of the atmosphere, what used to be grown on the soil, all of these factors play in,” said Rine.

All if it can change the delicate equation of the study.

So researchers collect as many tests as they can to help paint a better picture of problem areas that may need corrective action such as abandoned farmlands. The land he says can be a major cause of dust storms.

“I know ADEQ had put a lot of that soil sealant just a few miles that way and they saw excellent results," said Rine. "The sealant is used to keep the dust down and grow vegetation that also prevents the existence of loose soil."

In the end, they hope their research helps make dust storms more predictable by providing essential data to understand one of our states unique challenges better.