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NMSU Scientists Use Satellites to Track Massive Dust Storms

LAS CRUCES - For the past four years, New Mexico State University scientists have been using satellite technology to track more than 50 huge, rolling walls of dust from their birth in northern Mexico and southwestern New Mexico to their death on the Midwestern plains.

Max Bleiweiss, an adjunct professor with New Mexico State University's Agricultural Experiment Station, studies a satellite image of a massive dust storm. NMSU researchers have tracked more than 50 blinding dust storms in the past four years, zooming in on the origins of the dust clouds. (08/12/2005) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by J. Victor Espinoza)

From space, the blinding dust storms look like massive thunderstorms, rolling across the land. At their origins, the storms trail thick, long plumes of dust that are soon swept into the upper atmosphere where the tiny particles can ride for thousands of miles.

"Some days you wouldn't have a clue that a dust event was in progress in our region because the wind source was moving away from us," said Max Bleiweiss, an adjunct professor with NMSU's Agricultural Experiment Station. "On other days when the wind is blowing right, we're blacked out, and you can hardly see your hand in front of your face."

The NMSU researchers use data from both polar orbiting weather satellites and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's GOES-10 geostationary weather satellite, which is more than 22,000 miles above the earth, to follow the storms.

After tracking dozens of major dust storms, the NMSU team has found a common thread running through the storms: a common birthplace or point sources. "They seem be coming from very small regions, primarily in northern Mexico," Bleiweiss said. "There are other point source areas, too, in southwestern New Mexico and southern Arizona."

It's unlikely that a single source dusted up one of the big storms. "You can't say this plume came from this one location," said Robert Sanderson, an associate professor with NMSU's entomology, plant pathology, and weed science department. "Some of the large plumes probably originate from several point source locations and merge together as they move across the countryside."

So far, the NMSU researchers have cataloged these point sources, seeking trends and additional ground data from high-resolution satellites that can zoom in to a tenth of a mile. The next step is collaborating with researchers at University of Texas-El Paso and Colorado State University to analyze the dust storms in more detail.

The goal is to develop an inventory of point sources, in addition to gaining a better understanding of land surface dynamics, Bleiweiss said. "One day if we understand enough about what is causing these dust storms, then it might be possible to mitigate their damage to some extent," he said.

Bleiweiss is also discussing collaboration with soil scientists at Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez on identifying point source characteristics in northern Mexico.

NMSU's search for dust storms began in 1996 when the College of Agriculture and Home Economics' remote sensing center began archiving and using weather data from the U.S. Army's Research Lab at White Sands Missile Range.

"As time went along, I started noticing the dust storms on the satellite imagery," Bleiweiss said. "As we looked into it more, we were able to process the satellite data to characterize the dust events."

The satellite imagery allows the researchers to monitor the dust storms on a regional scale. In a large storm, the dust plumes can extend for hundreds of miles and be hundreds of miles wide.

"Without the satellite imagery, there would be no way to grasp the magnitude of what is happening," Bleiweiss said. "We've seen several instances where plumes go from northern Mexico, across New Mexico and West Texas and on into Kansas."