Deadly Illinois Dust Storm Raises Soil Questions. Is Solar the Answer?

May 2, 2023


At least six people are dead and more than 35 injured after a sudden dust storm passed through Illinois Monday and caused a multi-vehicle pileup,state police said.

High winds blew dirt through Montgomery County, Illinois, beginning around 10:55 a.m., causing “zero visibility” on Interstate 55, Illinois State Police Major Ryan Starrick said at a news conference.

Could events like this be pointing to a problem we have in managing topsoil?

National Science Foundation:

In a discovery that has repercussions for everything from domestic agricultural policy to global food security and plans to mitigate climate change, researchers at the University of Massachusetts have found that the rate of soil erosion in the midwestern U.S. is 10 to 1,000 times greater than pre-agricultural erosion rates. 

The newly discovered pre-agricultural rates, which reflect the rate at which soils form, are orders of magnitude lower than the upper allowable limit of erosion set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The U.S. National Science Foundation-supported study, which appears in the journal Geology, makes use of a rare element, beryllium-10, or 10Be, that occurs when stars in the Milky Way explode and send high-energy particles, called cosmic rays, rocketing toward Earth. When this galactic shrapnel slams into the Earth’s crust, it splits oxygen in the soil apart, leaving tiny trace amounts of 10Be, which can be used to precisely determine average erosion rates over the span of thousands to millions of years.

“We went to 14 small patches of remnant native prairie that still exist in Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas, and used a hand auger to collect deep soil cores, in material that dates back to the last ice age,” says Isaac Larsen, a geoscientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and the paper’s senior author. “We brought this soil back to our lab, sifted it to isolate individual sand grains, removed everything that wasn’t quartz, and then ran these few spoonfuls through a chemical purification process to separate out the 10Be — which was just enough to fit on the head of a pin.”

Not only is topsoil crucial for U.S. agriculture — the annual cost of diminished agricultural productivity and environmental degradation due to erosion is estimated at tens of billion dollars each year — and worldwide food security, but climate mitigation plans that rely on storing carbon in the soil. “The key is to reduce our current erosion rates to natural levels,” says Larsen.

If only there were a way we could allow farmers to rest large areas of soil, and still make a decent income producing a useful product. Oh, wait…

We have a bias in this country against leaving soil fallow, because we think it’s “not doing anything”.
I’ve often heard the claim that building solar energy on existing farmland is somehow not a good land use. 
But the soil around solar fields is not being “wasted” – in fact, it’s being enriched, regrowing organic matter, improving water filtration, providing habitat for the myriad of critters at the bottom of the food chain who get poisoned and crushed in the normal course of agricultural production.
Worth a thought.


5 Responses to “Deadly Illinois Dust Storm Raises Soil Questions. Is Solar the Answer?”

  1. Ann Says:

    This is so very maddening because t isn’t like this wasn’t a known problem since before Aldo Leopold began writing about it! And this that he wrote resonates so deeply…

    “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
    ― Aldo Leopold, Round River pg 165

    And then there is this pertinent quote from Wendell Berry, many years later.

    “I am walking the route of the departure of the virgin soil of the hill. I am not looking at the same land the first comers saw. The original surface of the hill is as extinct as the passenger pigeon. The pristine America that the first white man saw is a lost continent, sunk like Atlantis in the sea. The thought of what was here once and is gone forever will not leave me as long as I live. It is as though I walk knee-deep in its absence.” Wendell Berry, “A Native Hill”

    • greenman3610 Says:

      painfully true

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      Pesticides to protect crops (e.g. certain nematicides) are rarely designed to spare beneficial soil critters. Better agricultural strategies entail making crops more resilient, rather than killing off anything that might threaten them. It would also help to have more rotation and fewer county-wide monocultures (like the insane amount of Big Ag corn). We need to be smarter in the evolutionary arms race.

  2. redskylite Says:

    “To keep down dust generation, it’s really the very top of the soil that needs to be wet, but it dries out very quickly. This is something we expect more of under climate change.”

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      “I grew up on a farm roughly 30 miles from where the accident happened in Illinois,” Myers said. “We had windbreaks planted on average every half mile. They were osage orange trees that were planted in the 1930s.”

      Unfortunately, agricultural practices espoused by then-Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz in 1973 calling upon American farmers to plant “fencerow to fencerow” meant most of them were bulldozed out. Myers’ family removed theirs in the 1980s.

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