With the Drought, More Dust Storms

Despite last weekend's rains, the Texas drought lingers — and experts say the number of irritating and dangerous dust storms could increase across the state, especially in West Texas and the Panhandle.

A dust storm rolled in from the north and filled the skies above Jones AT&T Stadium with a beige haze during a Texas Tech football game last month in Lubbock. “Normally, this just doesn’t happen during a football game,” said Dr. Ted Zobeck, a research soil scientist for the USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS). “Crops are usually covering the ground, preventing mass amounts of particles from blowing. But that’s not the case in this drought.”

As of today, a map from The National Drought Mitigation Center showed that 73 percent of Texas is in the worst drought stage. More than 90 percent of the state is in the extreme drought stage.

“There are three things you need to cause a dust storm: wind, loose soil and a lack of vegetation,” said Nolan Clark, a former lab director at USDA-ARS in Bushland. “And when you don’t have enough water to grow vegetation, there’s nothing stopping those loose particles from blowing around. We are going to have a very dirty winter.”

Besides the loss of productive farmland, Clark said, a big danger that comes with dust storms is impaired visibility. “On the roads, people just can’t see where the heck they’re going,” he said. A few years ago there was a big pile-up near Amarillo when dust blew in from a nearby field and blinded drivers on the highway, he said.  

 

Austin recently saw a big dust spike along Lady Bird Lake in the center of town, and dust storms are affecting other states, too. Arizona has been tormented for the past few months. Last week, mass amounts of dust rolled across the Arizona desert and caused three separate pile-ups involving dozens of vehicles on a major interstate. The collisions resulted in one man’s death, and at least 18 other people were injured.

Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said dust storms are also hazards for wildfires because of the dry conditions and strong winds. He predicts Texas will have a very dry winter because La Niña — an intermittent Pacific Ocean phenomenon that caused the drought — is back and strengthening.

More dust storms in Texas are a strong possibility, but Zobeck said the prospect of another Dust Bowl like the one in the 1930s is highly unlikely. “The Dust Bowl was a complex situation. It was like the perfect storm — dry land, lots of wind and, on top of that, no money and little farming equipment,” he said.

Today, Texas dust storms are typically not as severe because better farming practices keep widespread blowing dust at bay, and farmers are acutely aware of the dangers, Zobeck said.

Under the Conservation Reserve Program, which was enacted to prevent another Dust Bowl, the federal government pays farmers to keep millions of acres of land planted with grasses rather than crops to keep the soil from blowing away.

John Stout, a research physical scientist at the USDA-ARS in Lubbock, said that if the drought were to continue at its current  extreme level, Texas could end up with many more fallow fields due to crop failure, and many more sites that present dust dangers. “It’s hard to predict what will happen in the future, but it would sure look a lot brighter if we got some more rain,” he said.

 

Texas Tribune donors or members may be quoted or mentioned in our stories, or may be the subject of them. For a complete list of contributors, click here.