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Why dust storms are causing havoc on I-55 — and how we can reduce the risk

An ambulance on the side of the road during a dust storm
Nathan Cormier
NPR Illinois file
An ambulance at the scene of the dust storm pileup on Interstate 55 south of Springfield on May 1, 2023.

There’s a lot we don’t know about dust storms in Illinois — like the ones that have caused havoc on Interstate 55 several times in the past year. But we do know what they need to form. 

The ingredients are dry, erodible soil; consistent straight-line winds; and typically farm work like planting or harvest that churns up dust in fields, according to state climatologist Trent Ford. They’re most likely to happen in the spring and fall, when weather and fieldwork align. 

But we don’t know if dust storms are happening more often now than they were before, or if they’re becoming more severe, or not. That’s despite high-profile dust storms like the one that led to a deadly pileup south of Springfield last year and others that closed I-55 in McLean County twice in the past month. 

“We don’t have good records of dust storms in Illinois,” Ford said on WGLT’s Sound Ideas. “Really, the only records that we can pull are from newspaper reports of impacts that happen because of the dust storm, mainly traffic accidents.” 

And from those limited records, there is not a detectable trend in dust storm frequency over the past 100 years or so, said Ford. 

There’s also no strong evidence of a connection between climate change and dust storms here. In fact, climate may be pulling in the opposite direction. 

Climate change is generally leading to wetter springs, working against the dry soil conditions that are needed for a dust storm. 

“There’s not a lot of plausible evidence saying that climate change is driving more frequent dust storms in Illinois,” Ford said. “That being said, if we go the next 10 years and we have more and more dust storms, that’ll have to be something that should be further explored. But for right now, the state of the science as we know it now, there’s not that strong trend there.” 

Reducing the risk

There are ways to reduce the risk. Soil conservation is the most effective method, Ford said. [Dust in the deadly 2023 event originated from freshly tilled and planted farm fields.] 

That includes conservation strategies like cover crops, no-till farming, and agroforestry, such as putting “alleys” of trees between row crops. 

“Those are all management strategies that have all sorts of benefits, but also the mutual benefit of reducing the risk of wind-blown dust and creating dust storms,” Ford said. 

Adapting also is important. Ford said he sees signs of that, like the recent interstate closures in Central Illinois. “I could argue that action may not have happened 2, 3, or 4 years ago,” Ford said. 

The risk is highest in the spring [April to June], with a secondary peak between September and November. That’s driven by harvest, when Ford’s admittedly “unproven hypothesis” suggests any crop that’s still in the ground is slowing down the wind enough to make a difference. 

I-55 is especially vulnerable because it’s a north-and-south corridor that gets hit with [generally] perpendicular west-to-east wind, with not a lot of wind breaks, like trees, to slow things down. 

“It’s not like the dust storm magically pops up around I-55,” Ford said. “If it forms somewhere in Central Illinois and goes for miles and miles, chances are it’s going to run into I-55.”

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.