The windy season wreaks havoc in southern New Mexico each spring, often bringing dust storms that create public safety hazards, especially for drivers traveling on roadways.
The high-speed winds have been particularly devastating on a stretch of Interstate 10 in Lordsburg, where 1,328 crashes occurred between mileposts 1 and 20 from 1980 to 2017, according to the New Mexico Department of Transportation. Of those crashes, 117 were caused by wind or dust, resulting in 41 deaths and 23 road closures.
Many of these crashes, NMDOT concluded, were attributable to poor visibility caused by dust storms originating on the playa and surrounding areas.
“We’ve had a bunch of accidents and several fatalities in this area caused by dust events,” New Mexico State Climatologist Dave DuBois said. “It’ll look perfectly clear, and then all of a sudden, you look one way, and you look back, and there’s a dust storm coming off the playa, and it’s zero visibility.”
DuBois, an associate professor in the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences at New Mexico State University, is part of a team of state and federal researchers and agencies working to address safety concerns along this stretch of I-10.
DuBois’ efforts involve overseeing research projects aimed at improving decision-support systems impacted by extreme environmental hazards. His research projects date back to 2010.
“In our current project with the New Mexico Department of Transportation, we have been collecting imagery from multiple time-lapse cameras to quantify hazards of wind erosion events on Interstate 10. These events were the primary cause of 11 fatalities on this road in 2017,” he said. “One of the research outcomes is to classify these images according to dust storms, weather types and driver behavior in response to weather hazards.”
DuBois uses nine cameras set up along I-10 to capture footage of dust storms. As of 2018, he had nearly 100 million images in his archive, he said. In 2019, one of his graduate students used the footage to develop an artificial intelligence algorithm to classify certain types of dust storms on the Lordsburg playa.
“The computer can tell if it’s a dust storm or not, and I’m having my students train the computer to do that for us. The ultimate goal would be to have something that’s automated and can send out an alert once the computer thinks there’s a dust storm,” he said.
“This work will lead to providing an early warning to Department of Public Safety officers and NMDOT staff on impending dust storms,” he added.
In a 2018 environmental assessment, NMDOT reported that DuBois’ cameras captured several convective storm outflow events, which formed during afternoon thunderstorms and covered large areas with dust. The cameras also recorded unpredictable high-wind events that created dust plumes with concentrations of loose sediment, resulting in zero visibility, according to the report.
The dust originates from soil particles on the surface of the nearby playa and surrounding areas, and it is generated by a regular surface disturbance by livestock and vehicle traffic; alteration of surface hydrology; depleted vegetation; and the presence of exposed saline-sodic soils.
Additionally, DuBois and NMDOT are evaluating the effectiveness of certain dust mitigation strategies, including water-flow rebatement and revegetation. However, revegetation can be difficult due to the alkaline nature of the soil, DuBois said.
“The pH is really high, so almost nothing grows on that. But some native grasses, such as alkali sacaton, which grows on the outskirts of the playa, are very adaptable to salty soils. The problem is they grow up really slow, and it may take several years for it to germinate,” he said, adding that the dust mitigation research is ongoing.
“There’s is still a lot more work to be done out there to make it safer,” he added.