Blowing dust the topic of geosciences research at The University of Tulsa

Settling the dust: Geosciences studies hazards of blowing dust on roadways

Oklahomans are familiar with tornado warnings, but in the entire southwestern region, warnings about blowing dust on roadways could be just as effective. Assistant Professor of Geosciences Jimmy Li has received a grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to identify hot spots that cause dust to cloud highways in New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. The results will help develop an early warning system to save lives.

blowing dust research
Grad student John Blackwell (left) and Professor Li visit areas prone to dust emissions.

Dust events, which can reduce visibility to nearly zero, contribute to chain reaction traffic accidents and property damage every year in the Southern Plains states. However, motorists currently do not receive any type of notice that conditions are favorable for such an event. In Arizona from 2008 to 2013, blowing dust was responsible for 566 collisions, 394 injuries and 14 fatalities. In 2016, dust-related injuries and fatalities were reported in California, Kansas and Arizona. On April 10, 2016, 11 were injured in accidents during a dust storm in Lawrence County, Arkansas. This is the first report of dust-related injuries east of Oklahoma.

Remote sensing and field observations show areas of dust emissions typically are localized, but the science behind spatial and temporal patterns of emission hot spots and how they correlate with blowing dust is a mystery.

“This is a matter of life and death to some travelers,” Li said. “There is very little research in this area, so we are identifying sections of highways that are particularly vulnerable to dust.”

Li and geosciences graduate student John Blackwell are collaborating for the two-year investigation with researchers at Texas Tech University and the University of Texas-El Paso. This summer, Li and Blackwell visited locations that are particularly sensitive to wind erosion. Using remote sensing and field observations, they identified locations where dust emissions occurred in the past 10 years and then determined factors that may contribute to wind erosion such as wind speed, soil and vegetation growth. The data will be used to develop an integrated modeling and monitoring system highway managers can use to make informed and timely decisions. An advanced alert system could lead to temporarily closing stretches of highway or posting warnings for motorists.

“This will enable us to generate a series of maps that show hot spots where there might be a high risk of dust, whether it’s close or far away from the highway,” Li said. “We’ll use modeling to set a number of standards for what weather and surface conditions may trigger a dust storm.”

Li said the study’s urgency will grow as projected global changes in climate, land use and land cover likely will cause more frequent and extreme dust emissions.

“Dust will pose a serious threat to transportation safety in the coming decades, particularly for the Southern High Plains where climate is projected to become drier and warmer,” Li said.

Results from the DOT study will be available for land and highway managers to improve regional transportation safety. In the future, Li said he hopes to conduct a follow-up study on the impact of weather and climate conditions on transportation infrastructures throughout the United States.