For the past four years, New Mexico State University scientists have been using satellite technology to track more than 50 huge, rolling walls of dust from their birth in northern Mexico and southwestern New Mexico to their death on the Midwestern plains. From space, the blinding dust storms look like massive thunderstorms, rolling across the land. At their origins, the storms trail thick, long plumes of dust that are soon swept into the upper atmosphere where the tiny particles can ride for thousands of miles.
The NMSU researchers use data from both polar orbiting weather satellites and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s GOES-10 geostationary weather satellite, which is more than 22,000 miles above the earth, to follow the storms. After tracking dozens of major dust storms, the NMSU team has found a common thread running through the storms: a common birthplace or point sources. They seem be coming from very small regions, primarily in northern Mexico. There are other point source areas, too, in southwestern New Mexico and southern Arizona.
So far, the NMSU researchers have cataloged these point sources, seeking trends and additional ground data from high-resolution satellites that can zoom in to a tenth of a mile. The next step is collaborating with researchers at University of Texas-El Paso and Colorado State University to analyze the dust storms in more detail. The goal is to develop an inventory of point sources, in addition to gaining a better understanding of land surface dynamics.