Flying Soil and Sand

So there I was.

Quit giggling, you pilots on the back row.

Ahem. There I was, two weeks ago driving down US-287 toward north central Texas. The eastern Panhandle had been blessed with a good deal of rain, some of which was in the process of wrapping up by rinsing off the metroplex. I could see the white of the storm waaaaay in the far distant southeastern horizon, and had made private bets with myself as to whether I would catch up to it or not. “The storm left Wichita Falls at 1000 local time and is moving at 090 degrees and 40 miles per hour. You left Clarendon at 1300 local time and are traveling at 120 degrees and 75 miles an hour. If the storm and the car maintain their current courses, when will the car intercept the weather?”*

Things looked very nice and green, and some of the playa lakes had water in them, or very healthy stands of cattails and rushes and sedges. The mesquite and trees looked healthy, and I was sorely tempted to stop in at the big produce stand on the way, except fresh, juicy peaches are not exactly road food, at least not in someone else’s car. The winter wheat had been harvested, the corn looked really good, ditto the sorghum, pastures sported lush green, and aside from the 98 degree heat, all was right in the world.

Once you get off the edge of the Caprock, cotton begins to edge out wheat to an extent, and the spring had not been really great for the cotton farmers. They got lots of rain. Lots and lots of rain, and planting was delayed. You need a certain minimum soil temp, like with corn, and of course if the fields are wet enough, your equipment will bog down and get stuck. So the cotton plants were still a bit small. Too small to hold the soil and break up the wind. Even with the rain that morning, the south wind had dried the topsoil pretty well, and down in that stretch of the highway, it is sandy and loose. Loose sandy soil moves. And boy was it moving, even though there were crops in the field.

I saw it in the distance because of the reddish haze that extended up about twenty feet into the air and spread across the fields, hiding the highway. On came the headlights and off went the A/C, because even on recirculate I didn’t want to pull more of that sand in than I had to. Sure enough, I punched into the reddish-brown haze and visibility dropped to half a mile. The road was straight, and I could see where the wind was picking up the sand from the southern edge of the fields and carrying it across the road.

Now, this has been a nice, moist year for those folks. Imagine what happens in a less-than-moist year. As you drive along the highway, at the edge of the Caprock you start seeing rounded areas along the sides of the road, covered in grass and scrub. Those are sandhills. The sand comes from streambeds and riverbeds, picked up and shifted by the wind. It’s perfectly normal, and has been going on since the last Ice Age. Fly over the Nebraska Sandhills if you want to see the largest example in North America.

One view of teh Nebraska Sandhills.

One view of the Nebraska Sandhills.

When I got to the crossing of the Red River, a goodly amount of water flowed under the highway bridge. And the sand was blowing out of the riverbed. Yes, the dry sand of the floodplain and outer parts of the riverbed had been picked up by the wind and was adding to the dunes and banks on the upwind side. That’s pretty much normal for the High Plains and western rivers, but did cause me to do a bit of a double take.

“The wind bloweth where it listeth,” as the gospel writer said (John 3:8, Authorized Translation)