MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Ill. (WCIA) — Central Illinois experienced a weather phenomenon rare for the region: a dust storm.
After a dust cloud caused dozens of cars on I-55 to crash Monday morning, the National Weather Service issued a blowing dust warning for Sangamon, Christian, and Shelby Counties. At least six people died in the crash, and more than 30 people were hospitalized. I-55 was closed until Tuesday morning, as crews were still clearing cars from the interstate. A dust storm warning was issued Tuesday afternoon.
In order for the NWS to issue a dust storm warning, visibility must be lower than half a mile due to winds stronger than 30 mph picking up dirt or dust. They are most common in the southwestern United States.
While this is the first time east of the Mississippi River the National Weather Service has issued a Dust Storm Warning, it isn’t the first severe dust storm in the area. Three previous dust storms that happened in Central Illinois include May 6, 1983, May 17, 2017, and June 3, 1990.
Here’s a look at some information provided by the National Weather Service on each date:
May 6th, 1983: A dust storm, unusual in Illinois, affected central and northeast parts of the state. The dust was kicked up from freshly plowed farm fields, and blown northeast by winds up to 60 mph. The dust reduced visibility in some areas to near zero. Numerous accidents resulted, including one near Rantoul which involved 9 cars and 2 semi-trailers.
May 17th, 2017: A dust storm affected central Illinois from mid afternoon into mid evening. Visibility was reduced to near zero in open areas, and caused closure of several roads. This included I-72 from Jacksonville to Springfield, and I-55 from McLean to Bloomington.
Winds gusting from 40 to 50 mph, dry topsoil, and loose soil from recent planting, combined to produce the blowing dust. Further northwest, severe thunderstorms produced tornadoes in Rock Island, Mercer, and Henry Counties.
June 3, 1990: Strong winds to near 60 mph affected large areas of northern and east central Illinois. A 13-mile stretch of Interstate 57 was closed from Arcola to Mattoon due to blowing dust. Some damage occurred to trees, power lines, and roofs.
Monday’s set up in Central Illinois allowed for an opportunity for blowing dust given several specific ingredients that came together to cause a major incident.
One of the reasons is high winds, with 30-40 mph gusts of wind recorded in Central Illinois Monday. Some of the top wind gusts were over 50 mph in our area.
Along with the high winds, another reason for the dust is very dry weather. In Champaign County during April 2023, the county only got 1.6 inches of rain, less than half the monthly average.
It is also the season farmers are also starting to till their land, which loosens the soil and makes it easier for the wind to pick it up.
The dust caused visibility levels to go under a quarter of a mile.
If you are caught driving in a dust cloud, the NWS recommends pulling off the road as far as possible.