A wall of dust as tall as 1,000 feet and 200 miles wide that roared across parts of West Texas and New Mexico is yet another sign of how rain-starved the region is.
National Weather Service meteorologist Charles Aldrich in Lubbock said that the dust that lifted into the air on the evening of March 11 came ahead of a fast-moving cold front that reached the city, already more than 1.5 inches behind on precipitation this year as drought lingers.
Most of the .17 inches of moisture that Lubbock’s gotten this year has been from snow and freezing precipitation.
Wind gusts Tuesday evening reached 50 mph and it took about 30 minutes for the leading wall of dust to move from the north end of Lubbock County to its southern border. Dust hung in the air afterward for hours and the strong winds persisted.
Visibility was reduced to about a mile in Lubbock. Northwest of Lubbock in Muleshoe and Friona the visibility was zero, Aldrich said.
Aldrich says the dust storm began in Amarillo and the wall of fine soil particles extended west into New Mexico and east to near Post, about 40 miles southwest of Lubbock. The front began in Kansas, and once it reached the parched Panhandle around Amarillo, the dust began to get kicked up.
It worsened as it moved south toward Lubbock.
“It’s drier up there, but it’s even drier down here,” Aldrich said.
About 67 percent of Texas is in some stage of drought, and projections from weather service officials in Fort Worth show the state got about half the average amount of rainfall for January and February. But the driest areas are in West Texas.
Dust storms like the one that hit the region Tuesday typically happen ahead of thunderstorms, Aldrich said.
But cold fronts also can spawn the monster clouds of dust that barrel across the flat terrain.
“If (the cold front) is as strong as the one we had yesterday, with the wind speed we had, it could definitely happen again,” Aldrich said.
Dust storms aren’t unusual in the region and form when wind whips up loose soil, particularly during dry spells.
In October 2011, during Texas’ driest year ever, a dust storm that reached 8,000-feet-tall moved across the region. Winds speeds reached 74 mph in some places and visibility was far less than a quarter of a mile. Those winds knocked down tree limbs, which fell on utility lines, knocking out power in parts of the city of about 210,000 people.