Interstate 10, an artery that runs through rural arid areas of southern New Mexico, is one of the deadliest roads in the country. On one stretch of highway, north of a dry lakebed called Lordsburg Playa, fatal collisions occur with such regularity that officials often call it the “dust trap.” It is a fitting name. Since 1967, at least 55 deaths have been linked to dust storms in the area.
This stretch of Interstate 10 provides a concentrated example of the dangers posed by dust storms. But across the US Great Plains, levels of airborne dust have steadily increased, increasing by about 5% each year between 2000 and 2018, leading to declining air quality and an increase in fatal collisions.
“Dust storms are appearing with greater frequency for reasons that include extended drought conditions and urban sprawl, which can damage the desert’s delicate biological layer,” said John Haynes, program manager for NASA’s Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences Team. Disrupt.” As Low rainfall and hot weather in dry areas Having become a regular fixture of the American climate, experts expect this trend to continue.
On land, dust storms create dangerous waves that can swallow entire cities. From space, dust storms can be seen moving across continents and oceans, revealing their tremendous scale. It is from this vantage point, high above the clouds, that NASA and NOAA have Earth-observing satellites that help scientists and first responders track wind-blown dust.
Daniel Tong, professor of atmospheric chemistry and aerosols at George Mason University, leads a NASA-funded effort to improve the nation’s dust forecasting capabilities, working closely with NASA’s Health and Air Quality Applied Sciences team. Tong’s forecasting system relies on an algorithm called Fengsha, which means “windblown dust” in Mandarin.
By plugging real-time satellite data into a complex model of Earth’s atmosphere – which accounts for site-specific variables like soil type, wind speed and how the Earth’s surface interacts with winds – the system produces hourly forecasts. Which can predict dust storms up to three days in advance.
Fengsha was initially developed using a dust observation method trained by NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites. These are “space truths”, as Tong calls them, that make reliable forecasts possible. Comparing the model’s predictions with satellite imagery of actual dust storms allows the team to identify shortcomings and improve accuracy. The latest version of the model includes data from the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the NASA-NOAA Suomi-NPP, NOAA-20, and NOAA-21 satellites, which observe every location on the planet at least twice a day . ,
Currently, the dust monitoring system is available at all 122 regional forecast offices of the National Weather Service. When a forecast calls for dust, local teams assess each case individually and decide whether to send an alert. These could include warnings to transit officials or weather alerts sent directly to people’s phones.
“Dust storms cause traffic accidents, negatively impact air quality and even carry disease-causing pathogens,” Haynes said. “Early warning systems empower individuals to take necessary actions, such as hiding indoors or clearing roads until the storm passes.”
Benefits of early warning
On May 1, 2023, high winds in Illinois sent a dark cloud of dust over Interstate 55, the state’s main thoroughfare. Visibility dropped to zero within minutes – leaving drivers little time to react. The resulting collision involved 72 vehicles and killed eight people. Dozens more people were admitted to hospital.
In some dust hotspots, officials are taking steps to reduce the damage. For example, on Interstate 10 in New Mexico and Arizona, drivers now get 100 miles of roadside warning signs prompting them to stop if dust is detected. But Interstate 55, in Illinois, is not a hotspot. No one saw the storm coming. And as dust claims new territory, local ground-based solutions may not provide adequate coverage.
That’s why satellite-based forecasts are essential, said Morgan Goris, an Earth system scientist and geohealth expert at Los Alamos National Laboratory. “When we see a dust storm on radar returns or dust sensors, people are already on the road, and it is more difficult to make safety decisions.”
Tong hopes forecasts will be used more frequently in commercial trucking “to prevent delays, traffic jams and accidents,” he said. Notably, almost all fatal collisions involving dust involve semi-trucks or tractor-trailers. By diverting or delaying truck drivers, the worst accidents can be avoided.
Tong also promotes improved forecasting as a way to reduce the frequency and intensity of dust storms. The storms that struck Illinois – which arose from the highly fertile soils of surrounding farmland – could have been prevented. “If we knew that there might be a dust storm tomorrow, farmers would stop plowing their land,” he said.
Most fatal collisions are the result of small, rapidly forming dust storms. But big storms bring additional dangers. Clouds of dust raised from loose soil or desert floors by high-speed winds can reach thousands of feet in the air and travel hundreds of miles, impacting the respiratory health of populations over long distances.
Valley fever—an infectious disease caused by a soil-dwelling fungus found in the arid and semi-arid climates of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California—is also a threat. The fungus is harmless in the ground, but airborne spores can cause infections that are sometimes fatal. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has reported more than 200,000 infections of Valley Fever since 1998. The current infection rate is about 10 times higher than that of West Nile virus, a vector-transmitted disease that often gets more attention.
“Both the areas where we see dust storms and the areas that are endemic for Valley Fever are expanding,” Goris said. They also warn that the increased reach of dust storms could lead to new airborne diseases. “We don’t know yet what other biology is in the soil that could infect us.”
It’s not just about what’s in the soil. Even when traces of chemical or biological toxins are absent, the soil itself can be a significant nuisance. “People think it’s a natural phenomenon carrying natural material, so it’s probably harmless,” said Thomas E. Gill, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Texas at El Paso. but it’s not like that. Fine dust particles can penetrate deeply into lung tissue and are linked to increased respiratory disease and premature death.
According to a global study conducted by atmospheric scientists at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, 2.89 million premature deaths were linked to PM.2.5 In 2019—and 22% of those deaths were caused by dust. Those most at risk were children and people with pre-existing conditions such as asthma.
A new way of looking at an old problem
In the 1930s, during the Dust Bowl years, severe drought and poor land management sent deadly “black blizzards” across the landscape. From Texas to Nebraska, the wind stripped the soil of vital nutrients, creating massive dust storms that blocked out sunlight. for several days at a time and reached as far east as New York City – where the sky was so dark that street lights could be on in the middle of the day.
Some scientists claim that Threat of “Dust Bowl 2.0” Is imminent. Urban sprawl, industrial-scale agriculture, wildfires, drought, and a warming climate can all strip the land of vegetation and remove moisture from the soil. But it can be difficult to draw a hard line from these individual sources to their cumulative effects. “We need to continue to develop our understanding of the consequences for our communities and adopt better practices to protect citizens,” Tong said.
The next generation of Fengsha will soon be integrated into an atmospheric model developed by NASA called Goddard Chemistry Aerosol Radiation and Transport (GOCART). Features of the Earth’s surface such as rocks, vegetation, and uneven soil all affect how much dust the wind can blow up. As a result, both the amount of dust in the air and the direction of airborne dust are often controlled by what is on the ground.
GOCART’s ability to model these surface features will improve the accuracy of the forecast system, said Barry Baker, an atmospheric physicist and chief of chemical modeling for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who oversees FENGSHA operations for NOAA’s Oceanic and Atmospheric Research. Research led for change. Team. However, he said the ultimate goal is a geostationary satellite. Polar-orbiting satellites pass over every location on the globe twice a day; A geostationary satellite could hover over the US and monitor dust around the clock, tracking storms as they develop and move.
Despite its dangers, airborne dust is a fundamental feature of the atmosphere and a vital component of life on Earth. Dust rising from the Saharan desert carries life-sustaining nutrients from the Atlantic Ocean to the Amazon rainforest, about 1,600 miles away. It also nourishes the vast algal ecosystems present near the surface of Earth’s oceans, which in turn support a diverse array of marine life. Even if we could rid the planet of dust, we wouldn’t want to do so.
Tong said, “There is no way to control the situation; you cannot eliminate desertification.” “But what we can do is raise awareness and try to help those who are most affected.”
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