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Oct 31, 2013 8:18 PM by John Patrick

NWS Tucson proposes dust detection network along I-10

TUCSON - Deadly dust storm along I-10 has become a common headline over the years. The latest pile-up involved 21 vehicles and now Pinal County is working harder than ever to protect drivers from these fatal dust storms.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Pinal County has continued to improve on its dust issues over the past couple years. The EPA has determined that the county has attained and continues to attain the 2006 Fine Particulate Matter 24-Hour National Ambient Air Quality Standard. This designation may suspend certain air planning requirements for this area but county officials are still working hard to protect motorists from blowing dust.

County officials have been working with the agriculture community, ranchers and land owners in the area to promote a "best practices" approach to keep dust down on windy days. However, Joe Pyritz the Pinal County Communications Director, says even with an aggressive approach this private land isn't the only problem area.

"When you drive to San Diego you see nothing but desert area and that's where the majority of the dust comes from. There really is no way to control that dusts unless you go out and water the entire desert which is impossible," explains Pyritz.

Pyritz says even with EPA standards met and today's technology it is impossible to prevent every dust storm from forming. For that reason the National Weather Service in Tucson has proposed a dust detection network made up of strategically placed sensors. John Brost with the National Weather Service says these sensors would let them know exactly when a dust storm is occurring.

"We would put these sensors along I-10 and also areas that are prone to dust that might be several miles off the interstate," explains Brost.

The NWS Tucson and University of Arizona have teamed up to submit a grant proposal to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration to help purchase the sensors that can run above $10,000. These sensors would bring a major benefit to screening blowing dust in Southern Arizona by not only getting dust storm warnings out sooner but using the data to predict future blowing dust events.

Brost says, "We can take the data and put it into a Hi-Resolution model that can predict these events several hours in the future."

The NWS hopes to find out about their grant results in the next couple of months after which they can start immediately purchasing equipment. The current plan is to not only place these sensors along I-10 between Tucson and Phoenix but also from Tucson to the New Mexico state line where the Willcox Playa also becomes a source for blowing dust.

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