UTEP Geology Research May Help Predict Future Dust Bowls

Last Updated on December 15, 2014 at 8:27 am

Originally published December 12, 2014

By Nadia M. Whitehead

UTEP News Service 

These satellite images show a major dust storm that hit El Paso in April 2013. Credit: NOAA National Weather Service.

These satellite images show a major dust storm that hit El Paso in April 2013. Credit: NOAA National Weather Service.

El Paso is no stranger to dust storms. Every now and then, grains of sand and howling winds take over the border city.

In the riveting new movie Interstellar, dust storms on a far worse scale have taken over Earth and disrupted the planet’s food supply. Actor Matthew McConaughey plays a former NASA astronaut who is forced to venture out of the solar system to find a new human home.

While an apocalyptic scenario like this may be hundreds of years away, if not impossible, researchers are expressing a growing concern about climate change and its potential effects on dust storms.

University of Texas at El Paso geologist Thomas Gill, Ph.D., frequently asks himself and his students, “Are we on the road to a new Dust Bowl?”

Gill, as associate professor at UTEP, has devoted the past 25 years to dust. Fascinated by weather phenomena and the earth sciences, the geologist is eager to learn if the extreme weather events associated with climate change will include worsening dust storms.

He may have his answer soon.

Gill recently received a grant from NASA to work with a team of specialized researchers from across the U.S. Together, they will study the last 30 years of dust storms that have occurred in the Southwest region — as seen from space. Using weather records from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and data and images taken by NASA satellites, the goal is to recognize changes and patterns in the frequency, intensity and location of dust storms.

The work could lead to a better understanding of how global warming is affecting the meteorological phenomena.

Gill suspects they will find changes with dust storms that are consistent with climate change, but he also is hoping for some deeper insights.

“Climate change played a role in the Dust Bowl,” he explained. “Any researcher who studies dust is aware of this iconic event, and hopes that there is some aspect of their work that can prevent a similar extreme incident, or provide better warning about its approach.”

Thomas Gill, Ph.D., associate professor of geological sciences, is studying how climate change might intensify dust storms. Photo courtesy of Thomas Gill.

Thomas Gill, Ph.D., associate professor of geological sciences, is studying how climate change might intensify dust storms. Photo courtesy of Thomas Gill.

By learning about dust storm patterns and how they are transforming, the team may be able to build dust storm prediction models — giving scientists advanced lead time to prepare for extreme events, or to simply know which conditions favor a dust bowl.

Dave Novlan, a meteorologist who works for NOAA in Santa Teresa, New Mexico, is curious to see what the study finds.

“It will be interesting to see particularly how things are changing,” said Novlan, who has conducted various studies with Gill over the years. “We’re seeing a lot more variability in storms and more and more extremes these days.”

The meteorologist also wonders how many of these extreme events are natural and how many are human-driven.

While a majority of dust storms are ordinary weather phenomena — like those that take place in the Sahara Desert — a growing percentage are affiliated with human disruption of the environment.

Poor land management is one cause.

As cities continue to grow, deserts are altered for infrastructure and the natural crust that holds soil together is broken up. When people fail to manage these land changes properly, gusts of wind easily pick up the freshly loosened grains of sand, leading to dusty conditions.

Drought causes sandstorms too. Drier regions of the Earth are the birthplace of dust storms, and Novlan is concerned that droughts and desertification are becoming all too common. He hopes that more people will become aware of climate change and be better stewards of their resources before the situation gets out of hand.

“Poor land management and climate change are a recipe for disaster,” Novlan said. “That’s what past events have taught us.”

So are Interstellar’s severe, global dust storms in our future?

“It’s not just total science fiction,” Novlan said, pointing to the Dust Bowl as proof. “It’s possible, but maybe not probable.”

He said the movie scenario at least serves as some interesting “food for thought” on the global scale. As for the Southwest region, if drought continues to persist, he expects dust storms may only get worse.

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