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Dust storm along a road in west Texas. Link to photo information
Above, west Texas dust storm. Crop residue, such as corn plants left on the field after harvest, can reduce wind erosion. Below, ARS researchers use a scanner to measure how much corn residue remained standing after winter. Click the images for more information about them.
Two researchers use a scanner to measure the amount of corn residue that remained standing after overwintering. Link to photo information

Wind Erosion Model Transferred from ARS to NRCS

By Erin Peabody
April 7, 2005

MANHATTAN, Kan., April 7--A computer model that is the latest cutting-edge tool for forecasting wind erosion damage is a step closer to reaching growers and landowners in wind-prone regions of the country, with the transfer on April 4 of the Wind Erosion Prediction System (WEPS) model from U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists to USDA conservationists.

"Farmers in Great Plains states, especially Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas, have long sought more effective ways to cope with the region's erratic winds and recurrent droughts, which together can strip vital topsoil and carry it hundreds of miles," said Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Administrator Edward B. Knipling.

"WEPS is an important scientific tool that will help landowners in areas with severe wind erosion," said Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Chief Bruce Knight. "This is the product of a 16-year collaboration of ARS scientists and NRCS agronomists providing producers with a valuable tool for making sound conservation decisions."

Researchers developed the computer model at ARS, USDA's chief intramural scientific research agency, and formally transferred it to NRCS in the April 4 ceremony. As the primary federal agency that works with private landowners to help them conserve, maintain and improve natural resources, NRCS will oversee WEPS' implementation across the United States.

For the past 40 years, growers have made erosion-related decisions based on a simple equation that didn't take into account new advances in erosion science and computer technology. WEPS can simulate weather, soil and crop conditions, and wind erosion on a daily basis. It can also project the emission of the tiny dust particles referred to as PM-10.

Led by ARS soil expert Edward L. Skidmore, scientists involved in the WEPS project have been developing and fine-tuning the system for the past 16 years. The scientists work in the ARS Wind Erosion Research Unit, part of the agency's Grain Marketing and Production Research Center in Manhattan.

NRCS and Extension Service personnel, as well as individual farmers, will be able to use WEPS to formulate specific wind erosion control practices. The decision support system can guide growers to the right approach, whether it's establishing a soil-stabilizing crop cover, setting up windbreaks and barriers, or reducing the soil's erodibility by improving soil stability.

The ARS Wind Erosion Research Unit was established in 1947 by Congress in response to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The unit is recognized nationally and internationally as the world leader in research on the devastating effects that winds can have on agricultural, soil, water, plant and air resources. In addition, wind-driven dust storms are capable of generating massive, rolling black clouds that can cause hazardous driving conditions and motorist fatalities.

More than 60 million acres of land in the United States are susceptible to wind erosion. In the Great Plains region alone, about 5 million acres are moderately to severely damaged by wind erosion each year. This lost topsoil, if it could be bought and replaced, would have an estimated value of $200 million.