It’s that time of year in the Southwest – and as far as Alaska – when dust storms take shape, raising health and safety risks as plumes of dirt take to the sky.
A dry winter means the Southwest is seeing a greater number of dust storms. Experts say the infamous haboobs, as they’re known in the Phoenix area, will likely be active this summer when monsoon season begins.
In southern Arizona, a series of dust blasts on Interstate 10 near the New Mexico border have shut down the highway at least seven times in the past few weeks, sending drivers on a 60-mile detour. The dust is coming from a farm near San Simon, Arizona, that was readied for planting but never seeded, leaving loose soil that is easily picked up by winds.
That’s caused zero-visibility storms that resulted in car accidents. Arizona State troopers now preemptively close the highway every time a storm approaches in an effort to keep drivers safe.
State officials say they’re seeking fines against the farm’s owner because he hasn’t cooperated fast enough. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality has watered the land to the tune of $20,000 a day for several days and is now using a biodegradable liquid designed to control dust erosion. The state plans to bill the landowner.
“Things can turn very quickly. And you’re seeing that all over that place right now, but in other areas in Colorado, parts of Oklahoma,” said Dave DuBois, climatologist at New Mexico State University.
DuBois said environmental conditions like drought, along with land use practices, affect how dusty the air will be. This calendar year has been particularly dry in the Southwest, which increases the risk of blowing dust.
“It’s amazing to see the same issues whenever there’s a dry spell combined with a land use practice of disturbing the soil. I mean it could be in Idaho, it could be Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas.”
Scientists have also kept track of dust storms in more remote places like Alaska, where webcam images show cloud-like plumes of dirt circling near the upper Copper River in southeastern Alaska.
Leuthold also specializes in forecasting haboobs in the Phoenix area. This year could see the giant walls of dust that roll in with thunderstorms more active because of the dry winter, Leuthold said.
In southern Arizona, the dust storms on I-10 have posed risks to both health and public safety, authorities say.
“To us it comes down to if we have to add 50 miles onto someone’s trip to avoid any fatality or serious injury, we’re just going to do it. We’re just going to close the highway for the safety of everyone,” Kameron Lee, a spokesman for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, said.
Lee said authorities don’t take the decision to shut down the highway lightly. Closures have economic repercussions, especially for commercial drivers who regularly use I-10.
Dust also poses health hazards to people with breathing or lung disorders.
Caroline Oppleman, spokeswoman for the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality, said the department at first thought the landowner was cooperating but realized he isn’t acting fast enough. The Associated Press made several attempts via email and phone to contact the landowner, identified as David Turner by the department.
The department will seek fines of up to $10,000 a day against Turner, Oppleman said.
“`In our opinion, he’s not really moving with the urgency and quickness in the response that we would expect. We have to take whatever steps we need to take to mitigate that dust,” she said.
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