Interstate 10, a dangerous road in southern New Mexico, has been plagued by fatal collisions caused by dust storms. This stretch of highway, known as the “dust trap,” has seen dust-related deaths since 1967, highlighting the dangers of such storms. Unfortunately, dust storms are becoming more frequent across the U.S. Great Plains, with dust levels increasing by approximately 5% each year between 2000 and 2018. Extended drought conditions and urban sprawl are contributing factors to this trend, disrupting the delicate biotic crust of the desert.
Dust storms have serious consequences, affecting air quality and causing fatal collisions. As the U.S. climate experiences reduced rainfall and warmer weather, experts predict that these storms will continue to increase. To address this issue, NASA and NOAA have Earth-observing satellites that track windblown dust and assist scientists and first responders. Daniel Tong, a professor at George Mason University, leads a NASA-funded effort to improve dust forecasting capabilities. His system, known as FENGSHA, uses real-time satellite data and a model of Earth’s atmosphere to generate hourly forecasts up to three days in advance.
FENGSHA was developed using dust observations from NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites. By comparing the model’s predictions with satellite imagery from real dust storms, the team can identify areas for improvement. The latest version of the model incorporates data from different satellites, including the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS), which provides twice-daily observations of the entire planet. Currently, the dust monitoring system is available to all 122 regional forecasting offices of the National Weather Service. When a dust storm is predicted, local teams assess the situation and issue necessary alerts, such as warnings to transit authorities or weather alerts to the public.
Early warning systems are crucial as dust storms have serious consequences. They cause traffic accidents, impact air quality, and may carry disease-causing pathogens. By empowering individuals to take necessary precautions, such as seeking shelter indoors or clearing roadways, these systems can minimize the risks associated with dust storms. Satellite-based forecasting is especially valuable in regions where ground-based solutions may not provide adequate coverage. The use of forecasts in commercial trucking could also prevent delays, traffic jams, and accidents, as semi-trucks are frequently involved in fatal collisions caused by dust storms.