Of Dust Devils, Soybeans and Summer Drought

Soy Crop In Jeopardy as Drought Worries Mount

When I drive the highways and rural roads of Appalachia, my mind seems to wander around every turn. Just like Jim McKay(of Wide World of Sports fame) used to look for a story off the beaten path, I am always wondering how the weather is affecting the community around the bend or people in the hidden hollow below.

It’s that desire to meet our loyal viewers that led me to Portsmouth today for a 2-for 1. First stop, the friendly Scioto County Welcome Center. There I did my annual rib feast (best ribs in the world courtesy of the Scioto Ribber) and spoke to the Southern Ohio Safety Council about severe weather. My topic focused on the great Wheelersburg tornado on 1968. We talked about how the lush farmlands of the Scioto Valley are prime havens for tornadoes. We also reviewed safety rules to react to if the big one comes again. Community leaders and safety industry safety leaders then peppered me with questions.

Coincidentally, a question on drought and severe weather led me to talk about the report of a large dust devil that swept past the Race Track just last week. You see when the weather gets hot and dry in summer, mini tornado wannabees form in super the heated fields of the Scioto Valley. These are not dangerous winds, but they are very interesting to watch. Of course their rarity makes an encounter with them unpredictable.

Anyway after a delicious lunch (and the doggy bag of ribs I brought back for the news staff was scarfed down quicker than a dust devil moves across the farmlands), I met photojournalist Jay Melvin and we traveled route 73/104 to the Lewis family farm in West Portsmouth. There we met Matt Lewis, a fifth generation farmer, who is struggling to salvage a soybean crop in the developing drought.

Now the Lewis family has been growing corn and soybeans for more than 100 years in the Scioto Bottom lands. As Matt’s father Wayne likes to say, “rain makes grain”. Trouble is this harsh May dryness and developing heat has stunted early season bean growth. The beans that are growing have little root system established. What should be a lush field of green, say a foot tall, is mainly a brown wasteland of cracked ground, blowing dust and thirsty bean pods.

Still, the Scioto River behind the farmland is sporting a steady flow thanks to plentiful spring rains at the Scioto headwaters near Columbus. That flow is a visual indicator that drought can be avoided this summer. But Matt told me point blank. “if we don’t get rain in the next week or 2, the first planting of soy is lost and I will have to re-plant”.

Fortunately for farmers like Matt, welcome rains are in the forecast by the weekend and next week. Trouble is, in a drought summer, rains are consistently over forecasted. Remember how I touted Memorial Day for some much needed showers only to see the action stay north? So we shall see if the rains materialize at the end of the 7 day forecast.

Before we left the farm, out of the blue, a sudden dust devil spun up no more than 10 yards from where we stood. About 10 feet high and 3 feet wide, this was a mini replica of a tornado. The spinning winds picked up dust and like the wobble of a top, the vortex moved chaotically in a left turning path across the field. REALLY NEAT!

Why the dust devil? Were we just in the right place at the right time to see it? What forces determined where it went? How fast were the winds inside the whirlwind? Is this a sign of summer drought? Let’s answer these questions one by one.

First, without a cloud in the sky late this May, afternoon highs are routinely heating to 90 on the farmlands. The hot air is so light that it begins to rise quickly. As it rises, the temperature gradient (change in temperature with height) distorts the column or air above the ground. That distortion starts to spin up a mini circulation. It’s like placing a spoon into a glass of water. As you begin to stir the water, a funnel tries to form. This represents the birth of the dust devil. The devil then spins like the top we talked about, often times for tens if not hundreds of yards. SUPER COOL!

Given we only stayed on the farm for an hour, and the fact the Lewis’ own hundreds of acres, pure mathematical statistics suggest there are numerous such dust devils that are not witnessed every day. In drought summers, these devils will be more common than wet and cloudy summers.

As for the speed of the winds, the vortex moved at about the speed of a kid riding a bike fast. Probably on the order of say a yard per second or 2 miles per hour if my math is right. Inside the vortex, the winds would likely be 5-10 times stronger which leads me to say the winds as the dust was elevated likely peaked about 10-20 miles per hour, or about the force of a fresh afternoon gust.

I showed the dust devil on my 6 o’clock show tonight, but you will get a second chance to see it on YOUR FRIDAY 5:30 EDITION when my story on the soybean crop airs.

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