Dust storms in the United States: a mixture of corporate agriculture and climate change

A dust storm in the Texas (USA) panhandle

The Great Plains and Midwest regions of the Unted States are seeing more and larger dust storms and higher levels of dust in the atmosphere. The increase has corresponded to an intensification of corporate agricultural practices in these regions–an example is the plowing of grasslands and marginal agricultural land in order to grow more corn for the production of biofuels. Even modest corn production on marginal land for biofuels has been more lucrative than receiving government payments to set the land aside for conservation.

The increase in dust storms–with significant environmental costs (like erosion) and sometimes tragic human costs–is ominous in regions that experienced the infamous Dust Bowl of the 1930’s.

Will these regions see another destructive “Dust Bowl” period?

What does the research say?

*Fairley, P. (2022). How to rescue biofuels from a sustainable dead end: An environmentally friendly path forwards for liquid fuel derived from plants will depend on smarter agriculture and smarter regulation. Nature, 611, S15-S17. [PDF] [Cited by]

“… these markets might also help to perpetuate the extractive culture that dominates agriculture today. Farmers depend on agribusiness giants and fossil-fuel providers
for products such as fuel, fertilizer and seed, and they struggle to make ends meet because those big firms capture most of agriculture’s economic value
. The balance could tilt even further if farmers are also relying on those corporations’ offset programmes to recoup the value of regenerative crop production. Advocates for farming communities are instead calling for a complete overhaul of the agricultural ecosystem that gives more back to these communities — a system that, as Lilliston puts it, “circulates both natural and economic resources to create a more sustainable and resilient system.

But a ground-up revamp for agriculture is a big ask. If the sustainability of biofuels depends on such fundamental changes, one has to wonder whether another next-generation biofuels failure isn’t the more likely outcome.”

*Lambert, A., Hallar, A. G., Garcia, M., Strong, C., Andrews, E., & Hand, J. L. (2020). Dust Impacts of Rapid Agricultural Expansion on the Great Plains. Geophysical Research Letters, 47(20), e2020GL090347. [PDF] [Cited by]

“Throughout the U.S. Great Plains, satellite data combined with surface networks have shown a significant increase in airborne dust over the last two decades. This airborne dust is negatively influencing human health and visibility and coincides with increases in agricultural production.

Climate change and land use are altering the landscape of the U.S. Great Plains, producing increases in windblown dust. These increases are investigated by combining coarse mode aerosol observations from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) sensor in addition to the Aerosol Robotic Network (AERONET) and Interagency Monitoring of Protected Visual Environments (IMPROVE) aerosol monitoring networks. Increasing trends of up to 5%/year in MODIS aerosol optical depth for dust observations are observed throughout the Great Plains (2000–2018). Cropland coverage has increased 5–10% over the majority of the Great Plains (2008–2018), and positive monthly trends in IMPROVE (1988–2018) and AERONET (1995–2018) coarse mode 90th percentile observations coincide with planting and harvesting seasons of predominant crops. Presently, results suggest increased dust due to agricultural expansion is negatively influencing human health and visibility in the Great Plains. Furthermore, results foreshadow a future where desertification becomes an increasing risk in the Great Plains.”

*Thaler, E. A., Larsen, I. J., & Yu, Q. (2021). The extent of soil loss across the US corn belt. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 118(8). [PDF] [Cited by]

Conventional agricultural practices erode carbon-rich soils that are the foundation of agriculture. However, the magnitude of A-horizon soil loss across agricultural regions is poorly constrained, hindering the ability to assess soil degradation. Using a remote-sensing method for quantifying the absence of A-horizon soils and the relationship between soil loss and topography, we find that A-horizon soil has been eroded from roughly one-third of the midwestern US Corn Belt, whereas prior estimates indicated none of the Corn Belt region has lost A-horizon soils. The loss of A-horizon soil has removed 1.4 ± 0.5 Pg of carbon from hillslopes, reducing crop yields in the study area by ∼6% and resulting in $2.8 ± $0.9 billion in annual economic losses.

Soil erosion in agricultural landscapes reduces crop yields, leads to loss of ecosystem services, and influences the global carbon cycle. Despite decades of soil erosion research, the magnitude of historical soil loss remains poorly quantified across large agricultural regions because preagricultural soil data are rare, and it is challenging to extrapolate local-scale erosion observations across time and space. Here we focus on the Corn Belt of the midwestern United States and use a remote-sensing method to map areas in agricultural fields that have no remaining organic carbon-rich A-horizon. We use satellite and LiDAR data to develop a relationship between A-horizon loss and topographic curvature and then use topographic data to scale-up soil loss predictions across 3.9 × 105 km2 of the Corn Belt. Our results indicate that 35 ± 11% of the cultivated area has lost A-horizon soil and that prior estimates of soil degradation from soil survey-based methods have significantly underestimated A-horizon soil loss. Convex hilltops throughout the region are often completely denuded of A-horizon soil. The association between soil loss and convex topography indicates that tillage-induced erosion is an important driver of soil loss, yet tillage erosion is not simulated in models used to assess nationwide soil loss trends in the United States. We estimate that A-horizon loss decreases crop yields by 6 ± 2%, causing $2.8 ± $0.9 billion in annual economic losses. Regionally, we estimate 1.4 ± 0.5 Pg of carbon have been removed from hillslopes by erosion of the A-horizon, much of which likely remains buried in depositional areas within the fields.”

*Tong, D., Feng, I., Gill, T. E., Schepanski, K., & Wang, J. (2023). How Many People Were Killed by Windblown Dust Events in the United States? Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. [PDF]

Windblown dust events, including dust storms and smaller blowing dust events, pose severe risks to public health and transportation safety. In the United States, the statistics of fatalities caused by dust events remains elusive. We developed a new dataset by merging dust fatality data from NOAA Storm Events Database and the Department of Transportation Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). There was a total of 232 deaths from windblown dust events from 2007 to 2017. This number is much larger than that reported by the NOAA Natural Hazard Statistics, which assigns some dust fatalities to high winds and thunderstorms (~45%) and does not include many events in FARS. Dust fatalities are most frequent over the Southwest, consistent with the spatial distribution of dust storm occurrences. Other high-risk regions include the Colorado Plateau, Columbia Plateau in Washington and Oregon, the High Plains where the disastrous “Dust Bowl” occurred, and the Corn Belt where blowing dust from croplands presents a driving hazard. All six most deadly dust wrecks (three deaths or more) involved semi-trucks and five of them were caused by dust storms along Interstate 10. There exist two “hotspots” for dust fatalities: (1) the “Deadliest 10 Miles” between Phoenix and Tucson, Arizona and (2) Lordsburg Playa in New Mexico, where active dust mitigation projects have been managed by state transportation agencies. In most years, dust events caused comparable life losses to that from other weather hazards such as hurricanes, thunderstorms, lightning, and wildfires. This work presents new evidence that dust is an underappreciated weather hazard.”

Questions? Please let me know (engelk@grinnell.edu).