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ARS Home » Plains Area » Lubbock, Texas » Cropping Systems Research Laboratory » Wind Erosion and Water Conservation Research » Research » Publications at this Location » Publication #325969

Title: Geomorphic and hydrologic controls of dust emissions during drought from Yellow Lake playa, West Texas, USA

item SWEENEY, MARK - University Of South Dakota
item ZLOTNIK, VITALY - University Of Nebraska
item JOECKEL, MATT - University Of Nebraska
item Stout, John

Submitted to: Journal of Arid Environments
Publication Type: Peer Reviewed Journal
Publication Acceptance Date: 5/26/2016
Publication Date: 10/31/2016
Citation: Sweeney, M.R., Zlotnik, V.A., Joeckel, M., Stout, J.E. 2016. Geomorphic and hydrologic controls of dust emissions during drought from Yellow Lake playa, West Texas, USA. Journal of Arid Environments. 133:37-46. doi:10.1016/j.jaridenv.2016.05.007.

Interpretive Summary: During windy and dry conditions, salt lakes on the high plains of the Llano Estacado emit saline dust that degrades regional air quality and can reduce soil productivity of croplands located downwind. Recent research on Yellow Lake, a large salt lake located on the historic Yellow House Ranch of West Texas, suggests that hydrology may play an important role in the formation of potentially erodible salt minerals on the often dry lakebed. At Yellow Lake, wind erosion occurs predominately during the dry seasons of winter and early spring when strong westerly winds detach and transport salt-rich dust and sand-sized aggregates. To measure potential dust emissions and saltation transport a device called PI-SWERL (Portable in situ Wind Erosion Laboratory) was used to sample the surface along three transects of the dry lakebed during the summer of 2011. The surface was found to consist of an unvegetated and desiccation-cracked clay surface topped with thin salt crusts composed of halite, thenardite, gypsum, and possibly other minor evaporites. The supply of loose erodible material was supply limited with peaks in dust emissions coinciding with areas of shallow groundwater (<1 m) along the margins of the playa where conditions encourage the near-surface crystallization of efflorescent salt minerals.

Technical Abstract: Research on the factors that control dust emissions from playas has revealed a number of complex geomorphic and hydrologic factors, yet there are few measurements of dust emissions from playas during drought or low-emission seasons. Deflation of Yellow Lake, a saline playa in West Texas, produces salt-rich dust that impacts regional air quality and degrades local soil productivity. We used the PI-SWERL (Portable in situ Wind Erosion Laboratory) to measure dust emission potential along three transects of the playa during the summer of 2011 while Texas was experiencing extreme drought. The surface of Yellow Lake consisted of bare, mud-cracked surfaces as well as thin crusts containing halite, thenardite, and gypsum. Direct aeolian entrainment of dust occurred primarily on a supply-limited surface. High-magnitude, low duration peaks in dust emissions occurred over parts of the playa underlain by shallow groundwater (<1 m) where conditions encouraged efflorescent salt mineral crystallization. In contrast, surfaces characterized by loose, wind-blown sand-sized aggregates produced sustained dust emissions two to three orders of magnitude higher than the playa surface because aggregates broke apart during saltation. Prolonged drought at the site results in a decline of both the water table and efflorescent salt production, which results in a change in the frequency and type of dust emissions. This study demonstrates that the effects of wet-dry cycles on dust production around groundwater-controlled playas are quantifiable and that more research is needed to assess the impacts of groundwater levels on dust emissions due to extended drought and anthropogenic climate change.