Dust Storms: The Shocking Truth

Dust pneumonia. Suffocation. Starvation. Being buried alive.

There were hundreds of ways to die during the Dust Bowl, a time in the 1930’s when great dust clouds rose into the sky and it seemed as if Mother Nature herself, no longer content to lay back and be abused, was instead rising up to wage a war mankind was powerless to win. Although exact numbers are hard to pinpoint, researchers estimate the number of deaths directly attributed to the Dust Bowl to be in the thousands. But, among the obvious dangers present during the drought and dust storms, there was one less visible but just as lethal:

Static electricity.

Survivors of the Dust Bowl tell stories about flashes of light inside dust storms, bright enough to illuminate the room and make particles of dirt shimmer, giving the illusion of magical–yet deadly–dream. Above the roar of the wind, the air crackled and popped, as if fireworks were going off inside the storm. Currents of electricity ran down windmills and along trailing wires, sparking fires and electrocuting those unfortunate enough to be in the path. What little crops that managed to grow were often singed or torched entirely. Blue flames shot from barbed wire fences and car batteries shorted out, stranding those trying to find their way home through the dust. Even after the dust settled, enough static lingered in the air that the mere act of a handshake was enough to knock a grown man to the ground. It wasn’t uncommon for grateful families, relieved to discover one another alive after a duster, to embrace, only to find themselves knocked unconscious by the shock.

During a time in which the mechanics of electricity were still being learned, it was a terrifying–and confusing–threat. And it’s only been through recent studies that scientists have determined how and why static electricity builds during a dust storm.

When wind blows across a dusty surface, the lightest particles aren’t the first to move. This is because they are either stuck to larger particles or wedged beneath them. But when the larger grains begin to move, they strike against each other and shake the smaller particles loose. All of this tumbling and jostling results in the transfer of electrons between particles, a process that occurs over and over and over again, with the larger sand particles losing electrons to the lighter dust particles. This creates negatively charged dust, which rises higher in the air, and positively charged sand, which remains on the ground. This separation of charges leads to a bonafide electric field inside the dust storm that travels and charges anything in its path–including barbed wire fences and people.

The people who lived during the Dust Bowl had no shortage of worries. They could starve to death waiting for rain to flourish their crops. The air could make you sick. The ground could rise up and bury you alive. And, to add insult to injury, because of static electricity, you could even drop dead from a hug.

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