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Idaho Scientists Chase Dust Devils Through The Oregon Desert

Brian Jackson
Boise State University
A dust devil forms on a dry lake bed in the Oregon desert.

Dust devils, those updrafts of rotating air you see in parking lots or in the desert, have been studied by scientists since the mid-19th century. But the science has seen a resurgence since the 1970’s when humans started sending spacecraft to Mars, where dust devils have been found in abundance. Scientists hope to learn more about the devils on the red planet by looking closer at the phenomenon here.

Groundbreaking new dust devil research is happening in our own backyard.

After four hours in a car, the last hour or so on a gravel road, we get our first look at a long, dry lake bed in southeast Oregon. And the first thing the scientists with me see, are the dust devils whizzing across the hot, baked clay landscape.

“Yeah, it’s lots of little bitty dust devils spinning around one another. That’s pretty cool,” says Boise State University physics professor Brian Jackson.

“They’re doing a dance,” says physics major Karen Davis.

“Yeah, that’s exactly what it looks like,” Jackson says. “Beautiful.”

With us is Ralph Lorenz, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins applied physics lab in Maryland. He points to the edge of the lakebed, or playa, and we all turn to look.

“We’re seeing a big one develop now. It looks like it’s 15 to 20 meters across, I guess,” says Lorenz.

Suddenly the swirling mass comes right towards us, and just like that, we’re in the middle of a giant dust devil.

Jackson and Lorenz are ecstatic. This is what they came here for, to find and study dust devils that could be a key part in learning about weather on Mars. And it looks like there are a lot of them here in the Oregon desert.

Credit Samantha Wright / Boise State Public Radio
Boise State Public Radio
The scientists gather for a quick planning session on the edge of the lakebed before they begin to chase dust devils.

Dust devils are found around the world, usually in deserts. Lorenz says the name for the phenomenon is similar in several languages. In France, it’s sometimes known as a dust whirl, in Germany a whirlwind, in India, it's devil wind, and in Spanish dust demon.

“People associate dust devils with spirits because they just kind of appear out of nowhere and disappear. The Arabic word is Djinn where we get the word ‘genie,’” says Lorenz.

Dust devils, which flow upward, are not tornadoes, which are bigger and flow down. Devils usually form from hot air near the surface of the Earth and as that air starts to rotate, it sucks up dust on the ground, making it visible. They range in size and strength, with some reported to be strong enough to lift kangaroo rats into the air.

More dust devils appear on the edge of the lake bed. The scientists break out cameras and wind meters and launch a drone with sensors taped underneath.

The drone takes off into the wind and Jackson is quickly pleased with its progress.

“Very good. Awesome! How is that not going to pass through a dust devil?” says Jackson.

The goal this trip is to try flying a drone through dust devils to measure pressure and temperature while taking video. Think of the movie Twister, only with a drone. Money from the Idaho Space Grant Consortium helps fund the pilot study. Jackson wants to show that drones can improve on the data gathered by static sensors by flying through dust devils. If Jackson’s drone works, it could be a start to a whole new kind of research into the phenomenon.

A line of devils blows up, and Jackson jumps into action.

“All right, close the door, here we go! Try to get this. Probably won’t catch them but we’ll give it a shot,” says Jackson

We all leap into the car and Jackson gives chase, rocketing across the playa.

“OK. Ready, ready, ready, we’re close here, we’re just about to hit, uh oh it’s disappearing. Shoot. It broke up didn’t it. Ahhh, so close,” Jackson says.

The dust devil peters out, so we stop the car and look around for the next one. The goal is to get close enough with the car to launch the drone into the devil before it falls apart.

A dust devil spins across the surface of Gusev Crater on Mars. NASA Spirit rover took the series of images on March 15, 2005.

Jackson and Lorenz may be sitting in the middle of the Oregon desert, but they’re hoping their research can unlock clues about the devils as far away as the surface of Mars. Dust devils have been found on Mars, lots of them, and scientists want to know how they affect the red planet.

“It’s important, just in understanding how the Martian climate works. Not just today, but how it may have worked in the past when perhaps conditions were more clement, when there might have been life on Mars,” says Lorenz

Lorenz says dust is a big factor in the current Martian climate because it affects temperature there. Dust devils may be responsible for as much as half of the dirt in the Martian atmosphere. That’s important if we plan to send people there someday, because when dust falls out of the sky, it will affect operations on the planet’s surface.

“Because solar power relies on solar panels not being covered in dust,” says Lorenz.

Solar panels, like the ones that power the rovers currently on Mars. They’ve lost power as dust settles on them, then spiked back up when a dust devils goes by and wipes them off.

The conditions on Mars, like gravity and atmosphere, are different than Earth, but Lorenz says scientists can get a sense from field measurements here for how the process works on Mars. And Lorenz says as they conduct more dust devil studies, they’re also learning more about their own planet.

“Yeah, sometimes it works like that. When we visit new places, new planets, we often find ourselves looking at the Earth in a different way and that’s a very valuable contribution of the space program that’s really quite unobvious and maybe not widely recognized,” says Lorenz.

Lorenz looks out across the flat, dry lake bed, and spots some dust devils in the distance.

“Yeah, it seems like things are picking up again,” says Lorenz.

So far, Jackson is optimistic about catching a devil with a drone.

“This is fun; I hope we can catch a dust devil. I think we will. We got pretty close that last time there,” Jackson says.

Credit Samantha Wright / Boise State Public Radio
Boise State Public Radio
Flat, dry lakebeds, like this one in Oregon, are perfect incubators for dust devils.

And Lorenz, who has studied dust devils in deserts all over the world, is amazed at how many we’re seeing.

“This site is certainly one of the most active I know of in the U.S.A.,” Lorenz says.

As we’re talking, Jackson spots a dust devil, and we all jump back into the car.

“Oh, there’s one right behind us,” Jackson says.

For the next two days, this is the pattern. As Jackson and Lorenz learn where the devils form on the lake bed they start catching them before they die out. Before long the drone is flying through devils and recording not only video, but measurements from inside the dust. Everyone comes through the study dusty, hot and happy.

“That was fun, this is the thrill of it, right? It’s kind of exciting. You don’t know how it’s going to turn out and there’s something to chase. This sort of appeals to something very visceral in our hunter-gatherer kind of nature. And then there is the intellectual thrill of understanding how these things work and what they can tell us. But that comes later when you sit at a computer and pour over the data,” says Lorenz.

That’s the next step: pouring over the data from the drone, the still cameras and the other sensors placed around the lake bed. Jackson and Lorenz are hopeful using drones in future studies will dramatically increase our understanding of dust devils, on Earth and on Mars.

Jackson will give a talk on his research called “Capturing Devils in the Desert,” Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at Boise State University.

You can watch the drone from the pilot study chase dust devils on the lakebed below:

Find Samantha Wright on Twitter @samwrightradio

Copyright 2017 Boise State Public Radio

As Senior Producer of our live daily talk show Idaho Matters, I’m able to indulge my love of storytelling and share all kinds of information (I was probably a Town Crier in a past life!). My career has allowed me to learn something new everyday and to share that knowledge with all my friends on the radio.