BYLINE: Mike Koon

Newswise — It made headlines nationwide. An abrupt dust storm blinded drivers on I-55 south of Springfield, Ill., on May 1, causing a massive pileup, ultimately killing eight people and injuring 37. A team of researchers from the University of Illinois, Cornell University, and Texas A&M University will try to determine the factors that caused the tragic event with the hope to prevent future similar episodes thanks to a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant. 

“We put this team together to understand the mechanisms of this kind of dust storm through the lens of at least three factors,” said Sheng Wang, the principal investigator (PI) on the project. “How much did climate (drought, soil dryness), farming activities (tillage, cover crop planting), and the extreme weather event (wind gusts, direction, etc.) each contribute to the disaster?”

Wang notes that while the May 1 I-55 storm received the most attention, it was one of a multitude of such events to hit the Midwest within the last year. 

“Agricultural dust storms very rarely happen in the central Midwest,” Wang said. “Not since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s have we seen them here with this kind of regularity.”

Wang, a research assistant professor and research scientist affiliated with the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) and the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences (NRES), leads the airborne sensing research team for the two-year old Agroecosystems Sustainability Center (ASC). 

ASC, under the leadership of Founder and Director Kaiyu Guan, was established to use advanced modeling and monitoring of agroecosystems to improve sustainability in the light of climate change.  

“We have the foundation to elaborate work on these problems,” Guan, also a Co-PI of this project,  said. “For example, we can use remote system data as well as artificial intelligence to detect conservation practices like the use of cover crops. We have published a number of papers on this subject.”

The USDA has funds available to support “rapid response” projects. In this case, researchers had one month after the incident to apply for the funding and a year to produce results. The study began in earnest on November 7, 2023 and concludes November 6, 2024. 

Team members will first use remote system data collected from satellite images and ASC’s highly accurate AI modeling to characterize conservation practice in Illinois. They will use information along with NOAA climate data to plug into weather research and forecasting with chemistry (WRF-Chem) models. From there they can develop different scenarios. For example, what if farmers had used 10 percent or 50 percent of their land for cover crops.

 “We can develop a mitigation strategy to advise stakeholders on potential preventative measures like cover crops and no-till practices,” Wang said. 

 The third component will be a social and policy analysis. The researchers do not want to merely rely on empirical data to drive the solution. They intend to survey local farmers, policymakers, and traffic agencies to understand their thoughts about the dust storms and conservation agriculture practices.

 “At ASC we advocate for these practices,” Wang said. “We can use modeling of these incidents as part of our research at UIUC to help develop agriculture policy and social science.”

 The team was carefully put together with the goal of using multiple approaches to understand the mechanism of this kind of dust storm. Guan and Bin Peng, an incoming assistant professor of crop sciences, will focus on sustainability. Jonathan Coppess, the Director of the Gardner Agricultural Policy Program, and Mackenzie Johnson, an assistant professor in NRES, will focus on agricultural policy. All of which are a vital part of the ASC team. Qi Li, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Cornell University and Yangyang Xu, an assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University, will largely focus on modeling. 

 “We have received very positive feedback from the USDA,” Wang said. “ There are many dust storm studies on the dry land region in the western part of the United States, but there is very limited study in the Midwest. This is a great integration of research with an extension component. It takes advantage of the strength of ASC and has great interest to the public. With such an elite team, I am quite confident we can generate some very exciting results.”

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