When high winds hit I-80 in Tooele County, the result is often dust storms and toppled trucks. Now the Utah Department of Transportation is using mobile weather stations to help warn drivers about possible deadly winds.
“We are always keeping a close eye on the wind,” said Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Andy Prescott.
In April 2015, a pileup involving six semitrailers and 11 other vehicles on I-80 west of Salt Lake City left a Layton man dead and two dozen injured. The cause of that crash, Prescott said, was “continuous winds picking up dirt and salt off of the Salt Flats out there and (carrying) it across the interstate.”
Prescott said it was one of the worst crashes he’s seen in the 15 years he’s patrolled the interstate.
“We usually have one, two good storms every year,” Prescott said. Those storms blow over semitrailers, send soil into the wind and often injure drivers.
The agency put the six weather stations along I-80 between Salt Lake City and Wendover. Jeff Williams, UDOT’s weather operations manager, said when wind gusts exceed 60 mph, “there’s the potential to tip over those vehicles, so we want them to take extra caution out there.”
The UDOT weather stations gather data on wind speed, temperature and humidity; one site even gathers data on the soil. A soil moisture sensor is buried about 4 inches below the surface of the weather station, and the data it gathers is one of the best indicators that conditions are primed for a dust storm.
When the soil moisture drops to 12 percent, meteorologists know the soil is dry enough and loose enough to start blowing, which could cause a “brownout” for motorists on the road.
“If it is impacting travelers, we will put warnings on our message boards warning people about the winds they are about to encounter,” Williams said.
Drivers can also get that information on the UDOT traffic app.
“When we see these conditions develop and the soil conditions are right, we want to make sure that we get the word out to people to use extra caution out there when visabilities are reduced due to blowing dust,” Williams said.
UDOT workers are currently using one soil moisture sensor but plan to install more on I-80 and other windy routes.
“It helps a ton, not only for the motoring public, but also for the Highway Patrol so that we can make sure that we have the manpower that we need to handle major incidents,” Williams said.