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A deadly dust storm highlights dangers of drier weather and top soil loss in the central U.S.

A view of vehicles in a dust storm that cut visibility to near zero and triggered a series of chain-reaction crashes in central Illinois in early May.
Thomas DeVore
A view of vehicles in a dust storm that cut visibility to near zero and triggered a series of chain-reaction crashes in central Illinois in early May.

A rare dust storm in Illinois this month caused a 72-car pileup on an interstate. Climate experts say it points to a bigger problem — soil erosion.

An unusual accident in central Illinois caused by high winds and dusty fields is raising red flags among some experts.

Eight people died and 40 were injured along a two-mile stretch of Interstate-55 south of Springfield on May 1.

The highway, hemmed by tilled fields, was closed in both directions as Illinois State Police responded to the crashes that they said were caused by “excessive winds blowing dirt from farm fields.”

Illinois State Climatologist Trent Ford compares the circumstances surrounding the dust storm to another destructive natural phenomenon.

“A dust storm is kind of like wildfire, where you have conditions that lead up to it that are actually completely separate from the conditions that actually set it in motion.” Ford said.

In this case, it was an unusually warm and dry April, freshly plowed fields and an extremely windy day.

Yet other areas have experienced issues with dust storms in recent years, especially in the drought-stricken Great Plains. In early April, school districts across Kansas closed schools due to high winds and blowing dust, and earlier this month, the state highway patrol cautioned drivers on Interstate-70 of blowing dust. Last spring a giant wall of dust, called a haboob, affected parts of Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa.

Wet or dry, soil erosion is a threat to the Midwest

For Karen Perry Stillerman, it was a surprise to see a massive dust storm strike in Illinois. The deputy director of the nonprofit advocacy group Union of Concerned Scientists said the state generally has been trending toward wetter weather.

“That is the sort of thing you expect to see in the Southwest,” she said, “in climates that are already much drier and getting progressively hotter and drier with climate change.”

The Illinois dust storm “stemmed from the collision of multiple systemic problems,” she said, including climate change and poor land management practices that leave soil vulnerable to erosion.

But she points out, it’s indicative of a far larger problem. According to a 2020 UCS report, U.S. croplands lose more soil to erosion every year than was lost during the peak of the Dust Bowl.

And while drought-stricken states in the Southwest and Great Plains may be more prone to losing soil to the wind, Midwestern states like Illinois and Iowa are more likely to experience losses due to extreme precipitation.

Perry Stillerman said practices that prioritize keeping soil covered will go a long way in mitigating erosion. The UCS is advocating for legislation that would incentivize farmers to implement soil-saving measures like cover crops and crop rotation.

And while the need to protect against soil erosion may become particularly visible during a tragedy like the Illinois dust storm, Perry Stillerman said the issue has other grave implications.

“It's not just dirt, it's the foundation of agriculture and our food system. And we're not protecting it.”

In Illinois, a lack of tree windbreaks also allowed the dust to sweep across the flat landscape without obstruction. Ford, the state climatologist, said the dust storm offers important lessons about what we should be doing to prevent future disasters. One of the key takeaways is the need to prevent soil erosion.

“Even without the travel accidents and the fatalities, we don't want to be losing our topsoil to the wind,” Ford said. “It's not an ideal practice.”

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.