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Road Runner: University of Arizona students' tool could be key part in dust storm research
Road Runner

Road Runner: University of Arizona students' tool could be key part in dust storm research

Dust storms are coming.

And when dust storms come, they can bring blinding conditions, creating a hazard for motorists.

But what if meteorologists could predict what regions are particularly susceptible to these dangerous storms by the type of soil in the area?

Students at the University of Arizona’s department of hydrology and atmospheric sciences are conducting research to figure out just what soil types and wind conditions cause these sometimes deadly storms.

Ruby O’Brien-Metzger, a mechanical engineering senior, is part of the team that has gone out to areas like Picacho Peak equipped with a tool to conduct the research.

Using their portable dust generator, a machine weighing about 50 pounds, they measure the threshold friction velocity, which is simply the rate of wind speed needed to stir up that particular soil.

“It’s like a mini wind tunnel inside of this pot,” O’Brien-Metzger said. “So really we’re looking at the wind speed at which dust production begins.”

The device is easily portable, unlike a regular wind tunnel, which would take more work to set up. The device is powered by two car batteries and can go anywhere in the field.

At Picacho Peak, the $800 tool helped the team find that it takes a wind speed of only 10 mph to cause blowing dust, depending on whether the soil is crusted or rocky.

The team is continuing its research in hopes that the measurements could one day help other researchers find a way to predict the storms.

And O’Brien-Metzger added that those measurements are only part of the research capabilities.

They plan to further their work in the Wilcox area, study sites that have undisturbed soil and measure the effects of soil moisture on dust generation.

“What we are trying to do with our research is to use it to help other people create a model that will help predict dust storms, to try to keep everybody safer,” O’Brien-Metzger said.

The team has been collaborating with Joey Blankinship, a UA assistant professor in the department of soil, water and environmental science, who is researching how to eliminate dust storms by enhancing the health of soils.

O’Brien-Metzger said the dust generator is a “great machine” that is being used to get an accurate reading on how well that treated soil is doing.

“This is one of the only machines that you can take out to the field to actually do this,” she said.

It’s possible the research and use of the generator may be needed on an even greater scale.

The Arizona Department of Transportation is constructing a dust-detection radar system along a 10-mile stretch of Interstate 10 to give advance warnings to motorists.

Down the road, the UA team’s data could be used by the department to enhance its warning system.

ADOT spokesman Tom Herrmann said when it comes to that potential collaboration, he wouldn’t rule it out.

“We’re very interested in collaborating when we can work together with another agency to try to improve things for drivers overall and improve things for the state,” he said. “We have done a number of collaborations in the past and if it makes sense, I would say that’s something we would look at.”

Down the road

Construction crews are closing Naranja Drive from La Cholla Boulevard west to Gemini Drive in Oro Valley for three weeks as part of a road-widening project.

The road will be closed from June 3 to June 24 as crews pave the west side of Naranja .

Motorists should use Shannon Road as an alternate route.

The north and southbound lanes of La Cholla will remain open.

Contact Star reporter Shaq Davis at 573-4218 or

On Twitter: @ShaqDavis1

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