Monday's winds resulted in rare Dust Warning for Illinois
After the deadly accident along Interstate-55 south of Springfield this week, the National Weather Service office at Lincoln took an extraordinary step. It issued its first ever Blowing Dust Warning.
“We believe it’s the first issued east of the Mississippi River,” said meteorologist James Auten. “Those are usually reserved for the desert southwest.”
This one was for only a handful of counties in central Illinois. Winds were gusty Wednesday, between 35-45 miles per hour. A 54 mile per hour gust was reported at the Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport later in the day.
Dust from farm fields was blown onto the interstate, created low visibility and resulting in a series of crashes in both directions. Six people died and more than three dozen were injured.
“You had several factors. If this was along a two lane road, out in the country, you wouldn’t have had such significance. But this was on a major interstate. And the interstate is going north to south, so you had the winds fairly well aligned, going perpendicular to traffic,” said Auten.
He said the dry conditions in a freshly plowed field allowed fine particles to be picked and carried farther, resulting in a dust storm.
“We could see it on satellite,” Auten said. “There were other areas probably experiencing zero visibility, like on highway 29 between Springfield and Taylorville. But there wasn’t the level of traffic that there was (on I-55).”
He said the warning was issued due to a combination of the crashes along the interstate and what was visible on radar.
While dust storms don’t occur often in Illinois, they are most common from May to early June when farming activities ramp up.
The National Weather Service said there have been previous notable accidents in the central region of Illinois caused by blowing dust:
May 6, 1983: A dust storm developed in central Illinois, and spread northeast to Chicago by evening. Winds up to 60 mph reduced visibility to near zero. One accident on I-57 near Rantoul involved 9 cars and 2 semi-trailers.
June 3, 1990: Much of northern and east central Illinois was impacted by winds up to 60 mph. I-57 was closed from Arcola to Mattoon due to blowing dust. One accident injured five people.
May 17, 2017: Wind gusts of 40-50 mph caused visibility near zero in open areas, requiring the closure of I-72 from Jacksonville to Springfield, and I-55 from McLean to Bloomington. Two people were killed in accidents caused by the dust.
A dust warning was also issued Tuesday for much of the same area. Does that mean they will become more common?
“I think what it will do is make us more aware when it gets to this time of year, during the planting season. Now that it’s fresh in our minds, we’ll be on the lookout for it more," Auten said.
“We issued a statement early in the morning to say we’ve got high winds and could have some blowing of dust around freshly farmed fields. But those kinds of statements don’t always get a lot of play because people think it happens every year.”
“This was a perfect storm, if you want to use that analogy, where a lot of things came together."