A 19-vehicle pileup on Interstate 10 between Phoenix and Tucson is being blamed on a sudden dust storm that wiped out visibility. Three people were killed and 12 others injured in the crash, which happened Tuesday evening.
“That area of I-10 is historically known for these blowing dust storms that come through,” DPS Officer Carrick Cook told local reporters. “At the time of this crash, there were reports that there was zero visibility in the road, and with these dynamic systems that come through so quickly, people are often surprised by it.”
In 2011, an epic, 50-mile wide, 2-mile high, dust cloud swept into Phoenix. It knocked out power in most of the city, grounded flights, and sent apocalyptic photos of a city swallowed by dust flying around the web.
These sorts of storms, which most of us associate with black and white photos from the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, may increasingly become part of our future, thanks to climate change.
The USGS concluded in 2011 that future drier conditions were projected to accelerate dust storms in the Southwest. In that year, much of Texas and Oklahoma suffered droughts more intense than those during the Dust Bowl.
Research focusing on the Colorado Plateau has also shown that hotter average temperatures and drier weather in store for the Southwest will make it harder for perennial grasses and plants to survive. Without this ground cover to stabilize dry soils, there’s little to prevent even a moderately powerful wind from whipping up dust into a killer storm.
The National Climatic Data Center reports that currently, Phoenix experiences three severe dust storms every year. The state of Arizona as a whole has witnessed 100 dust storms over the past decade. Fortunately for motorists, most of these dust storms are very localized and don’t come barreling across highways without warning.
Researchers from University of Colorado Boulder recently documented that the amount of dust being blown across much of the Southwest has increased over the last 17 years. The study authors cite increased windstorm frequency, drought, and changing land-use patterns as contributing factors.
According to Brian Skollof, of wunderground.com, small, fast-moving dust storms — like the one Tuesday in Arizona — can be caused simply by high winds sweeping across dry desert terrain. These kinds of dust storms are often short-lived, but because of how suddenly they form, can pose the greatest danger. The dust storm seen in Phoenix in 2011 formed when air is forced down from the atmosphere and pushed outward by an approaching thunderstorm, dragging debris with winds speeds up to 60 mph. Scientists are still uncertain as to how climate change will affect the North American monsoon, which is responsible for these Southwest summer thunderstorms.