SAFETY: Weather sensor research in Az. could lead to highway safety measures

Meteorologists have developed new way to detect dust storms near highways

March 29, 2016
Weather sensor research in Az. could lead to highway safety measures
Weather sensor research in Az. could lead to highway safety measures

Small, localized channels of blowing dust are a consistent and dangerous problem for Arizona drivers. Resulting in obscured visibility, such channels played a role in a 19-car pileup that caused three deaths on I-10 near Picacho Peak on Oct. 29, 2013.

In effort to address this concern, meteorologists from the National Weather Service have developed a device that can alert authorities to the possibility of blowing dust near highways. At present, nine sensors are being tested. The goal is to provide warnings that can help the Weather Service alert agencies such as the Arizona Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Safety to the possibility of dangerous conditions.

Existing technology, such as credit card-sized, single-board computers and dust sensors, was employed to make the devices at a cost of only about $100 each.

The sensors are placed within a few miles upwind of highways, most along I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson, where blowing dust has been known to cause problems. They are mounted on existing structures such as broadband Internet towers, where they can get power and a connection to the Internet. The Weather Service is working with other agencies, including the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office and private companies, to find locations. The devices are being used to fill in the gaps left by existing weather stations and visual observations, particularly in sparsely populated areas.

“Here in Arizona, we have a real problem with detection of dust storms, especially the beginning of them,” Ken Waters, warning-coordination meteorologist at the Weather Service’s Phoenix office and one of the device’s creators, told the USA Today network. “Too often, we get it too late, after the dust is here and we start having problems on the interstates with terrible crashes, injuries and fatalities.”

The sensors take a reading every 30 sec, and if they get three consecutive increasing measurements, they will send an email to the Weather Service and other concerned agencies. These alerts help the Weather Service determine whether to issue a dust-storm warning (which could go out to potential drivers via mobile-phone alerts) or allow other agencies to notify motorists in other ways.

Waters said the initial deployment of the sensors is a test to make sure the devices work. If all goes well, the Weather Service could partner with other agencies to put more sensors in problem spots for smaller dust occurrences.