Melba Lara: You’re listening to WBEZ. The National Weather Service office in suburban Romeoville issued its first-ever dust storm warnings yesterday. Parts of north-central Illinois were warned of the threat of near-zero visibility. It comes soon after blowing dust hit I-55 in central Illinois, causing numerous car accidents that killed seven people. Illinois State Climatologist Trent Ford now joins us now to discuss why this is happening. You know, Trent all of this is really shocking you know that these are the first dust storm warnings issued by the National Weather Service Office in Romeoville. It's very 1930s dust bowl-esque. Does this mean this is the first time we're seeing this phenomenon hit our area?
Trent Ford: Yeah. So you're right about this is the first warning that the Chicago National Weather Service Office put out on a dust storm. And last Tuesday, the Lincoln National Weather Service which serves most of central Illinois also put their first ever dust storm warning out. But that doesn't mean this is the first dust storm that Illinois has seen. We had a significant and actually in some cases deadly dust storms as recent as 2017, when two people perished because of a vehicle accident dust storm near Springfield. Going back to the 1980s we've had dust storms that have caused a lot of damage from travel and things like that as well as from the 1950s. So, it's just that this ability of the National Weather Service office put out a dust storm warning hasn't been around for nearly as long as we have climate records for.
Melba Lara: And Trent, what's going on here? What's causing this dust storms to develop now in Illinois?
Trent Ford: Dust storms are, well, I like to compare them to wildfires. They get kicked off by a weather event but they're really due to the culmination of multiple factors is leading up to that particular day that they happen. Really what's caused this is just a very warm and dry start to April that is kind of compounded a bit of a dryer start to spring overall for much of Illinois. And so that that kind of two to three week period in April that everybody in Chicago just kind of just prays for how beautiful the weather is, it was also very dry, and it really dried and parched our topsoil out. So we have very dried, down to maybe four to eight inches soil, on top of wetter soil underneath that, that can lead to that kind of loosening up of the aggregates of the soil and make it a lot more easy to erode when we get stronger winds. Combine that with the time of the year that were in, spring when farmers are working the field where they may be tilling or not. But even just running the tractors over the field planting, they can stir up that loose soil and make it wind-born. And so all of those factors put together, getting a very, very strong windy day, like what we had yesterday, ahead of those storms in northeast Illinois or last week in central Illinois, is just kind of that perfect storm of conditions to make for a dust storm.
Melba Lara: Trent, I talked to you a lot about climate change and we know that the state's climate is changing, but we also know from talking to you before that not every notable weather event has a clear connection to climate change. Is this in instance, where climate change could be playing a role?
Trent Ford: Yeah, you know, the kind of the common thing to see a weather event that we haven't seen in a long time, or to the extent we've maybe never seen, and assume that it's because of climate change. But in fact, the conditions that lead to either the dust storm yesterday, kind of just south of Chicago, or the one in central Illinois the week before, really doesn't have much of a connection to climate change. Our springs are getting wetter in Illinois, not dryer, which means that the kind of dry soil issues that we're dealing with right now are becoming less frequent, not more frequent. And there's really no detectable trend in the winds. Um, now this has, there's nothing of the land management issue that contributed to these things, but there's no indication that at least the weather that kicked off these kind of events is becoming more frequent or will become more frequent in the future.
Melba Lara: That's Illinois State Climatologist, Trent Ford, talking to us about dust storms. If you want to submit a question about our region's climate for us to answer you can email firstname.lastname@example.org. This is WBEZ.
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