Even in the midst of a pandemic, spring represents renewal. However, in New Mexico, it also brings dangerously windswept roads throughout the southern part of the state.

Gale-force winds plague drivers on Interstate 10 in Lordsburg, specifically between mileposts 1 and 20. What starts as clear visibility as far as the eye can see turns to zero due to sudden dust storms, and this can result in serious accidents.

Controlling the uncontrollable

The New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT) reports that more than 1,300 collisions have occurred in that area from 1980 to 2017. Many were caused by poor visibility due to dust storms. In total, 41 drivers lost their lives on the part of a road that has seen 23 closures over the years.

Dave Dubois, an associate professor and climatologist at New Mexico State, joined NMDOT and other state and federal researchers to analyze the treacherous stretch of road. Nine cameras were placed along I-10 to document the storms providing almost 100 million images.

From there, a graduate student developed an algorithm to identify dust storms and subsequently create classifications, focusing specifically on the Lordsburg playa. Their objective is to automate detection and provide an early warning system to authorities to notify drivers of impending dust storms.

Beyond the cutting edge technology, DuBois and NMDOT are also taking a more “analog” approach in an attempt to minimize the dust storms. Their current focus is on water-flow rebatement and revegetation, the latter representing more of a challenge due to the pH level of the soil that borders I-10.

While nothing can stop “Mother Nature” from blindsiding drivers with dust storms, a system that can alert travelers along Interstate 10 could save lives.

There have been many horrible crashes that have occurred during these dust storms. The weather does not give truck or car drivers a free pass; they still must drive reasonably and as safely as possible under the conditions.