Springtime is near, and with it the start of dust storm season in the southwestern United States.
Arizona experiences some of the worst dust storms in the country during the spring and summer months, leading to poor visibility and potentially dangerous driving conditions on the state's highways.
To help protect drivers from dust-related dangers on the road, the University of Arizona has created a mobile application for iPhones that provides dust storm alerts and safety tips.
Available for free download on iTunes, the app uses a person's geographical location anywhere in the country to determine if there is danger of a dust storm, or any other type of storm, in the area. The warnings come directly from the WeatherBug service.
An Android version of the app is expected to be released later this month or next month.
In addition to storm alerts, the app provides a list of specific tips for what to do when a dust storm hits, such as:
Do not drive into or through a dust storm.
Do not stop in a travel lane or in the emergency lane.
Look for a safe place to pull completely off the paved portion of the roadway.
Turn off all vehicle lights, including your emergency flashers.
The app also offers a place to list emergency phone numbers or insurance policy numbers drivers may want to have readily available in a storm, as well as a list of things people should keep in their cars as part of a Dust Storm Survival Kit. Some of those items include water, snacks or energy bars, a basic first aid kit, flashlight, dust mask and a whistle or pocket siren to signal for help.
The Dust Storm app was the brainchild of Kirk Astroth, UA assistant dean of Cooperative Extension and director of the Arizona 4-H Youth Development program in the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Developed by University Information Technology Services' web/mobile services team, with support from Student Affairs Marketing, it is among a group of mobile apps designed and developed by members of the University community as part of the UA's Mobile Matters initiative. The forthcoming Android version of Dust Storm is being developed with additional support from the University's SBS Technical Services group and UA computer science senior David Celaya.
Astroth said he got the idea for the app after seeing something similar in North Dakota that provided tips for staying safe in a blizzard.
"Dust storms are so common in Arizona, and so many people are killed on the road because they don't know what to do," Astroth said. "We wanted to help."
According to a report by the Arizona Department of Transportation, 193 crashes in 2011 occurred in weather conditions that included blowing sand, soil or dirt, resulting in two deaths and 140 people injured.
Astroth hopes those numbers will go down with education, noting that many people simply don't know the proper action to take in a dust storm, especially out-of-state visitors who might not be accustomed to those types of events.
One of the most common mistakes, he noted, is simply attempting to drive through the storm, even when blinded by a curtain of dirt.
While dust is a fact of life in the desert Southwest, Arizona's ongoing drought makes for even stronger dust storm conditions, said Mike Crimmins, UA Cooperative Extension specialist and associate professor of soil, water and environmental science.
With little moisture or vegetation to hold dust in place, high winds can quickly lead to blowing dust, said Crimmins, who was not involved in the development of the Dust Storm app.
There are two dust storm seasons in Arizona, Crimmins said. During the spring season, which typically starts in March, large-scale weather systems with lots of wind can kick up enough dust to close major highways including I-10 and I-40. Those storms may last for the better part of a day, with 20-30 mph sustained winds and gusts up to 50 mph.
A second round of dust storms typically appears during the summer monsoon season, when thunderstorm conditions create shorter-lasting, but more intense, dust storms known as haboobs, which can see winds gusting up to 100 mph, Crimmins said.
Officials statewide are working to address the dangers of dust.
During a recent dust storm workshop in Casa Grande, Ariz., organized by the Arizona Department of Transportation and the Phoenix and Tucson offices of the National Weather Service, officials said they have gotten more aggressive about monitoring dust storms and shutting down the state's highways when visibility is poor.
Astroth hopes the Dust Storm app can also be part of the solution. He encourages drivers to check the app before they get on the road so they can avoid dangerous weather conditions in the first place.
"This seemed like an easy and good thing to do," he said. "It's free, and it could save people's lives."