Farmers, scientists, and meteorologists have been sitting up and taking notice as severe dust storms in the United States are becoming more frequent across the Great Plains and the Southwest.
Research shows dust storms have doubled over the past 20 years and are becoming more intense—due to a combination of increased drought conditions and the expansion of crop planting.
Damage from these squalls is widespread, including everything from crop losses and property damage to power outages, reduced visibility, and increased respiratory infections.
A 2020 study that used data from satellite imagery to locate the primary sources of dust in the Great Plains showed the region contained more dust points (1,258) than the Chihuahuan desert (187).
Cultivated fields comprised 43 percent of those dust points in the Great Plains area.
The study’s authors also identified human-influenced factors as a primary driver of dust emissions in the American Southwest.
In a separate 2020 analysis, researchers noted a 5 percent increase in airborne dust every year in the Great Plains between 2000 and 2018. Concurrently, this coincides with a 5 to 10 percent boost in farmed land in the area from 2008 to 2018.
As more acres of the earth are converted for agricultural purposes, more dirt ends up exposed. This creates a powder keg of conditions for dust storms in historically windy regions of the United States.
In May, a tempest of dust with winds up to 105 miles per hour tore across the Great Plains, causing extensive property damage and killing at least two people. The hurricane-strength storm hit South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, and Minnesota.
While increased food production is earmarked as one of the main culprits behind the spike in airborne dust, farmers also hold the keys to mitigation.
Philip Kaatz, a senior extension educator at Michigan State University, says soil loss is one of the primary factors farmers aim to control.
“The topsoil they have is a valuable commodity and to lose it is not good,” Kaatz told The Epoch Times.
Kaatz says Michigan doesn’t have the same depth of rich topsoil as some neighboring great lakes states like Indiana and Illinois, so retention is a priority.
And cover crops play a pivotal role in that strategy.
“Cover crops are being used in Michigan, and really, it’s one of the things that we’re seeing an increase [in] … I’ve been working with dairy farmers on cover crops. They’re not only using them as a crop, but also as a feed source [for animals],” Kaatz explained.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) maintains that cover crops and responsible land management practices to improve soil health are crucial for combating the growing “dust” factor.
“Fully functioning, healthy soils are less susceptible to runoff and erosion. Implementing soil health management systems also allows farmers to improve profitability because they may spend less on fuel, inputs, and energy while benefiting from reduced crop yield variability resulting from improved soil conditions,” a department spokesperson told The Epoch Times.
The USDA representative described the fundamental principles of maintaining healthy soil.
One method includes maximizing living roots and keeping crops in the ground for as long as possible to reduce exposed dirt.
Another technique involves minimizing tillage, or what’s commonly referred to as “no-till farming.”
Maximizing biodiversity in planting during rotations and using cover crops were also mentioned as vital elements in reducing soil loss.
Jay Bragg at the Texas Farm Bureau says cover crops are essential for soil retention, but they also create a paradox for farmers in drought-prone regions.
“Cover crops limit soil exposure and their root systems help anchor the soil in place. Cover crops are probably the best conservation practice to minimizing soil erosion,” Bragg told The Epoch Times.
“However, they require water like any other crop. As such, during prolonged droughts and in arid regions, the use of cover crops may be limited.”
Texas is no stranger to drought or massive dust storms. Presently, 88 percent of the state is experiencing moderate to extreme drought conditions. The state was also part of the famous depression-era dust bowl of the 1930s, which affected massive swaths of the Great Plains.
Bragg noted that not all farming operations can employ cover crops. However, the majority have transitioned to a system that reduces land tillage and leaves residue from the previous year’s harvest in the soil.
He added that some producers are also embracing the increasingly popular no-till method, which means the ground is never actually plowed.
The preservation strategy employed varies case by case and really boils down to available resources and soil type, according to Bragg.
“No farmer wants to watch their soil and crop blow away. However, during extreme conditions, it can still happen,” he added.
Part of combating the escalation in dust storms across the United States is education, which the Kansas Soil Health Alliance (KSHA) is tackling at the source.
“What our organization is doing is helping to provide education and resources for farmers and ranchers to learn about soil health,” coordinator for the KSHA, Jennifer Simmelink, told The Epoch Times.
Simmelink says the organization promotes land management but strives for balance, understanding that farmers have profit margins to consider when incorporating soil health practices.
She also asserts there’s no “one size fits all” technique for creating robust soil. Much of that has to do with drastic differences in the dirt between Kansas’s eastern, western, and southern portions.
“In western Kansas, it’s all conserving moisture and using it, and [in] eastern Kansas, a lot of times it’s about getting rid of moisture,” Simmelink explained.
“Then you get to southeast Kansas … where there is more clay. And southwest Kansas, it’s pretty sandy soil. It’s quite diverse across the state.”
In December 2021, a massive dust storm ripped across Kansas, with wind gusts up to 80 mph recorded. The same storm triggered power outages in four states across the Great Plains.
Another part of the battle to prevent erosion and airborne particles is considering what was previously grown on the land so a producer can understand how to maximize soil vitality.
“Principle No. 1 is context. What’s the history of that land, how has it been managed, what’s been done there and taking that into account,” Clay Conry, District 5 director for the South Dakota Farm Bureau Federation, told The Epoch Times.
Conry explained that his own land had been used for hay production for a long time, which took a lot of nutrients out of the soil once the bales were rolled up every year. This made it essential to put those lost elements back into the soil for retention and erosion purposes.
“And really that’s why principle No. 2 is the top one and that is increased soil armor. You want to have an appropriate amount of soil cover and that’s where cover crops come into play preventing wind and water erosion,” he said.
During the 1930s dust bowl, 2.5 million people migrated away from the Great Plains region, which is still considered one of the largest migrations in American history.
Today scientists estimate upwards of 44 billion pounds of dust are in the earth’s atmosphere on any given day. And it’s getting worse as the storms continue to increase.
Conry says producers are aware of the problem and work as the vanguard in the uphill battle against soil loss through better land-management practices.
“Some people have said soil erosion is American agriculture’s No. 1 export,” he said.