June 12, 2024

More research needed into wind, dust challenge, says climatologist

A crash involving at least 20 vehicles shut down a highway in Illinois on May 1, 2023. Illinois State Police say a windstorm that kicked up clouds of dust in south-central Illinois led to numerous crashes and multiple fatalities on Interstate 55.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — When it comes to wind in the spring in the Midwest, it’s complicated.

“It’s very complicated,” said Trent Ford, Illinois state climatologist.

Photos and drone video of billowing clouds of dust moving across the farm fields and over towns and highways throughout the Midwest have been making the rounds on social media.

In many of those photos and videos, the source of the dust is a tractor pulling a planter or plow or cultivator across a bare field.

On May 1, 2023, a dust storm moving across Interstate 55 south of Springfield caused a 72-vehicle pileup that killed seven people and injured 37 others.

Ford was contacted by numerous media outlets after that dust storm to talk about the weather conditions that led to the massive crash.

For Ford, the “is it getting windier?” question is complicated, because while scientific data suggests that it hasn’t become dramatically windier over a number of years, the public that Ford interacts with when he gives weather and climate presentations around the state say otherwise.

“Everywhere I go around the state and talk to people, this isn’t just at farm shows or farm events, it’s people from every walk of life around the state, you ask a room whether they think winds are changing and how they’re changing, I would say three-quarters to maybe even more, 70% to 80%, of people will say they think it’s getting windier,” he said.

But when it comes to the scientific evidence, the numbers aren’t there to support the claim.

“We haven’t seen widespread, like at multiple weather stations, evidence showing significant trends in wind for any time of the year, like wind speed or wind gusts, no matter how we define it,” Ford said.

Spring in the Midwest tends to be when winds are at their highest.

“This time of the year, middle of March to the middle of May, is our climatologically windiest time of the year. Having strong, elevated winds is pretty typical of this time of the year,” Ford said.

When those spring winds meet ground that is being worked for spring planting and by tractors pulling planters, billowing dust clouds, of the sort seen on social media, happen.

“It’s the overlap of this is a very windy time of the year and we have a lot of fieldwork activities going on and so it makes for that kind of condition,” Ford said.

Even historical records, including records kept before and during the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, can’t be relied on to prove or disprove whether the wind is picking up over time.

“We have been measuring wind for a long time at many stations across the state because it has such ramifications for air traffic. Some of these data sets go back, like at Moline in the Quad Cities, they go back to the 1920s,” the state climatologist said.

“The wind was measured differently back then, so there are a lot of discontinuities in the data set when they shifted to better wind observations.”

Ford said he looks at more recent data when measuring wind levels through the years, due to the differences in how wind has been measured.

“I definitely don’t like looking at wind data pre-1980. I’ll usually only go back to the 1990s, just to make sure and so we have consistent reporting measures,” he said.

And when he did that, Ford has found that, at least in 2024, it has been windier than in recent years.

“From March 1, the average wind speed in Moline was the highest going back to at least 2000, roughly 11 miles an hour higher. The last two years have also been very high, among the highest, over the last 25,” he said.

“So, that does lend credence to this is a typically windy time of the year. And relative to the last 25 years, it’s been a bit windier over the last month and a half. That is something that is relevant.”

Ford said, for him, those small increases plus what he’s hearing from the public all over the state, may mean it’s time to dig deeper into the wind.

“We don’t necessarily have a really strong, long-term trend in windiness. Everybody thinks it’s getting windy, which suggests there is some investigation to be done,” he said.

Jeannine Otto

Jeannine Otto

Field Editor