CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (WCIA) — Several central Illinois professors will research agriculture practices to curb the recent uptick of dust storms in the Midwest.

Researchers from University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, as well as Cornell University and Texas A& M, are collaborating to determine factors of deadly dust storms and how to prevent similar tragedies. A grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is funding the project.

A deadly dust storm in May caused a pile-up on I-55 south of Springfield, killing eight and injuring 37.

Sheng Wang, a UIUC Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences professor who is working as the principal investigator for the project, noted that the deadly I-55 crash has not been the only dust storm in the Midwest this past year.

“We put this team together to understand the mechanisms of this kind of dust storm through the lens of at least three factors,” Wang said. “How much did climate (drought, soil dryness), farming activities (tillage, cover crop planting), and the extreme weather event (wind gusts, direction, etc.) each contribute to the disaster?”

The research project will use the university’s Agroecosystems Sustainability Center to model conservation practices across Illinois. The team will then contrast the information with NOAA climate data to experiment and model different scenarios, such as no-till practices and different amounts of cover crops planted.

“We have the foundation to [do] elaborate work on these problems,” Founder and Director of the ASC Kaiyu Guan said. “For example, we can use remote system data as well as artificial intelligence to detect conservation practices like the use of cover crops.”

The team of researchers also plan to survey local farmers, traffic agencies and policymakers on their thoughts about conservation agriculture policies.

Wang said he’s confident the study will generate some good results.

“There are many dust storm studies on the dry land region in the western part of the United States, but there is very limited study in the Midwest,” Wang said. “This is a great integration of research with an extension component.”

The study began earlier this month, and will conclude in a year.