February 27, 2020

Dust Storm Season Begins in Eastern Washington and Oregon

Sometimes during late winter or early spring, the dust storm season begins east of the Cascade crest.

The rain has lessened, the sun has gotten stronger and the upper soil layers have begun to dry out.  Some farmers have begun to plow their fields in preparation for planting.

And then a big wind event occurs, often associated with the passage of an unusually strong weather front, with powerful winds raising dust and soil from the surface, creating a cloud of dust.

All of this happened on Sunday, leading to a significant dust storm on I-82 between Kennewick, Washington and Hermiston, Oregon, with more dust around eastern Washington and southern Oregon.
Blowing dust made travel dangerous along section of I-90 on Sunday.  Check out video here.

The result was a series of car crashes that sent some to the hospital and closed I-82 for several hours (see map for location).

The new GOES-17 weather satellite produces a new "dust product" that highlighted the dust on Sunday (pink colors).

On Monday, a colleague of mine, Professor Robert Houze, traveled I-82 and saw the result of the dust storm, with the roads heavily layered with fresh material (see below).

The winds behind the Sunday cold front was fierce, with some gusts exceeding 50 mph...something illustrated by he winds at noon Sunday (red numbers are the gusts in mph).  Far greater than needed to raise the soil into the air (15-25 mph does it for small grains)

Perhaps the most impressive dust plume came off of Summer Lake in southeastern Oregon (see google map below, with Summer Lake on the western side of the image).

There is vast area of dried lake bed to the east of the current lake, even including some sand dunes.

Winds at 2 PM Sunday were gusting to 62 mph at the southern portion of the lake--plenty strong enough to raise massive amounts of soil and dust.

The result was a very visible dust plume extending to the east (see below, look for the brownish color)

Summer Lake has quite a dusty history, including being the source of the "mystery dust event" in 2015 (details here).

Some dust storms are natural east of the Cascade crest, but the situation has been made far, far worse, by poor agricultural practices, including plowing fields and leaving them exposed to strong winds.   Land disturbances, include heavy use of off-track vehicles, has contributed as well.    No-till farming and restrictions on the use of natural areas could greatly aid in reducing dust storms.

Tragically, the dust storm represents the denuding of a thin veneer of rich, invaluable soils. An irreplaceable loss that will undermine eastern Washington agriculture if allowed to continue.


  1. There seems to be scant, if any, robust evidence that off-road vehicle use in arid regions contributes substantially to the occurrence and/or severity of dust storms.

    1. That's such a true statement... If you ignore history and all evidence.

    2. As someone who rides off-road a lot myself but mostly on working forest land out on the peninsula, my gut reaction was that this wasn't the case, at least not where I ride. Before asking you for evidence I decided to go find some for at least one side and came up with this for anyone else who is curious: https://books.google.com/books/about/Off_Road_Vehicle_Use_Executive_Order.html?id=n145AQAAMAAJ

    3. And I found one more! https://books.google.com/books/about/The_American_West_at_Risk.html?id=0D_fW5XBqRoC
      I wish these were scientific studies rather than just related literature, but I suppose we didn't really have the tools to measure this kind of thing before it started happening, so this is the best we have.

  2. Predictably, despite the "Dirty Thirties" Dust Bowl of Great Depression years, and the "Filthy Fifties" less impactful drought and subsequent dust storms in the 1950s, farmers can employ bad agriculture practices in a pursuit of profit.

  3. Perhaps the expected rain and/or snow in this weekend's forecast will help alleviate the situation

  4. "heavy use of off-track vehicles"???Are you talking about gravel roads in general too?
    Compare the square footage of our farmground vs. ohv sources. Don't be silly.

  5. Sounds like the issue with dust storms in southern Arizona brought on by poor agricultural practices and even worse practices by land developers. I don't recall hearing anything about off track vehicle usage being a contributing factor in that situation. If anyone has a link to post showing evidence otherwise, I look forward to reading it.

  6. Humans just don't know how to manage. We could have kept the lion's share of farming in Western Washington, where there is more rain and less wind, and put industry, Boeing, Amazon, Microsoft, etc. and the housing boom in Eastern Washington. Result: Much less irrigation water needed, farming where the water is, population and industry where the sunshine is.

  7. Good point, Ansel. Sad watching more topsoil being blown away. So needless, given all that's been learned about soil conservation since the 1930s, and frankly even before that.

  8. You underestimated the possible effects of dust storms - at least historically. For spring break from the UW in March 1969, two buses loaded with Husky Winter Sports Club enthusiasts drove from Seattle to Jackson Hole Wyoming for a week of skiing. On the way over, passing through the Horse Heaven Hills in eastern Washington, a dust storm hit the area and the bus had to pull over to the side of the road. Visibility was probably not more than 20 feet. The inside of the bus became cloudy because the filtering unit could not stay ahead of the dust. We sat for nearly 1/2- hour waiting for the dust to clear sufficiently that we could continue the 15 hour drive.


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