Monday, December 1, 2014

Great Easter 1913 Dust Storm, Prairie Fires—and Red Rains

Hours before powerful tornadoes devastated Omaha and Council Bluffs, the same monumental weather system swept an enormous dust storm across Oklahoma and Kansas, igniting major prairie fires—and baffling thousands in Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri with rains of red mud

“Into the wagon, NOW! Those flames are heading our way!” shouts the driver as he wrestles to keep the panicking horses in check. Nearly blinded by dust and smoke, the ranchers stop frantically digging a fire break, throw their shovels into the wagon, and vault in after them. At the crack of the whip, the horses take off at a dead run.

“Angle off to the right! The wind has switched! The flames are gaining on us!”
Red dust storm over Lubbock, Texas, in October 2011 may have resembled the vast dust storm that swept across Oklahoma and Kansas on Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913. This scary 2:18-minute video gives some idea of the high winds and engulfing darkness.
yells one of the men over the howling gale. “I’m gonna lose my house and barn!”

The horses’ hooves thunder and the wagon bounces over the uneven ground. In the valley they edge ahead of the flames. But as they start racing uphill, the prairie fire rages after them, approaching the galloping team of horses. With a deadly whoosh, the fire rushes over the crest, the fierce wind driving sparks hundreds of yards ahead.

Then, just as abruptly, the wind changes direction again. The driver slows the panting horses. Holding bandanas over their noses and mouths, the coughing men watch the crackling flames of the prairie fire pull away into the obscuring dust and smoke.

It is a hell of a way to spend Easter Sunday—sweating, choking, seeing neighbors’ houses, fields, and barns engulfed by walls of fire, and terrified for home, family, and livelihood.
The Dodge City story as reprinted in The Wichita Eagle..
The men are one of countless groups of volunteers—ten groups crowded into automobiles, the rest in wagons—totaling more than 100 men who had charged out of Dodge City, Kansas, in all directions, responding to frantic telephone calls to fight prairie wildfires that ignited one after another, nearly ringing the city with fire. 

Dodge City—proud of its heritage of having had Wyatt Earp as its city marshal and Bat Masterson as a sheriff—is no stranger to fires. Two conflagrations just months apart in 1885 had nearly devastated the city. So the next year (1886), city leaders installed a complete waterworks system and half a dozen hydrants around town for 3-inch hoses. Now in 1913, it has one of the best fire protection systems in the West. But also now, flush with new riches from last year’s bumper wheat crop (thanks to the Eureka Ditch irrigation system), Dodge City is a wealthy, bustling, energetic metropolis of 5,000 people boasting a white marble courthouse, paved streets, and a brand new brick and stone depot for the Santa Fe Railroad—and it has a lot more to lose. 
When Mayor Tom Bell finally returns from firefighting around 2:00 AM with an exhausted and ash-smeared automobile crew, reporters from The Dodge City Globe cluster around for news. “Each fire is about five miles long,” the mayor recounts. “The veering of the wind keeps them changing courses, and backfires add to the confusion. We could do nothing when fires were on the hills, fanned by the wind, but we beat out some when they were in the draws. It’s bad—the fires leap roads as though they weren’t there. The whole country is out fighting fires.” And countless friends and neighbors were suddenly homeless, without feed for their livestock .

Speculation about electricity in The Junction City Union
How did all those fires start Easter morning? Carelessness? Arson? Speculation that night is rife. 

One weird theory is that the fierce dust storm itself is carrying electricity, and sparks flying off metal structures into dry grass start the blazes. Many farmers and ranchers nod—they have all gotten shocks in dust storms when they walk too close to metal windmills, barbed wire fences, telephone lines. Sometimes the sparks are inches long and the shock is enough to knock a man down.

Others pooh-pooh the very notion. One of the skeptics is the Kansas State Fire Marshal Harrison Parkman, just appointed to the brand new position in Topeka, declaring he personally would “make a rigid investigation” of the causes. “If I find there was any incendiarism in their origin, I can promise I shall make it warm for the fire brands,” he warns. “I shall stay on the job until I catch them.”
Warning. The Dodge City Daily Globe

A few days later, Parkman is scratching his head. Not only is there no evidence of arson or negligence, but the only explanation that fits the evidence is indeed the weird one.

The dust storm itself had ignited the fires.

Harbinger of the Dust Bowl
Stiff winds and occasional dust storms were part of life in the Great Plains, especially during times of drought, and that Easter Sunday 1913 fell after a three-year dry spell. So it took a lot to impress Kansas residents when a “blow” kicked up. 

The March 23 dust storm was exactly such an exception. The National Weather Service’s Monthly Weather Review called it “unusually severe.”

The thermometer went absolutely wild. In Topeka, from a low of 28°F 9 PM Saturday night, the temperature rocketed upward in 21 hours to a late-April–like 69°F 6 PM Easter evening. Western Kansas topped out at 75°F and very dry. Then the mercury headed straight for the basement, passing freezing Monday morning on its plummet to the 20s. By Wednesday, Kansas and Oklahoma were enveloped in a blizzard that dropped 12 to 14 inches of heavy, wet snow.
Wild weather. The Topeka Daily Capital

With the dramatic, fast temperature swings, on Easter Sunday morning hurricane-force winds began howling across the state. Newspapers reported winds topping 50 miles per hour everywhere, reaching 55 mph in Topeka, and gusting above 60 mph in Wichita—a new record. Dodge City reported gusts reaching fully 80 mph in “one of the worst windstorms Dodge ever experienced.”

And across the state, the air was filled with gritty dust. In northeastern Kansas, the high-altitude dust darkened the skies while in Topeka the dust-filled air resembled a heavy fog. East and west of Wichita, workers on the Missouri-Pacific Railroad reported wind-driven “dirt storms” that filled their eyes, ears, and noses and tore down most of the telegraph lines. The dust storm was the “worst in the memory of the oldest settlers” in Abilene, McPherson, and Solomon, with electrical static playing havoc with telephone and telegraph communication. 

Further southwest in Larned, the blowing grit was so thick and fierce that the people who could attend Easter Sunday services showed up at church wearing dusters (lightweight long coats to protect their clothes) and goggles as if they were going for a drive on a dirt road in an open automobile, and the sky was so blackened with dust that homes lit lamps by 3:30 in the afternoon.
The Topeka Daily Capital

“In the west it [the dust storm] was especially severe and trainmen bring graphic accounts of it today,” reported a front-page story in The Salina Daily Union. “It was positively blinding, especially where the soil is sandy. Drainage ditches along the tracks were blown full of dust, and in many places the drifts are so deep the fences along the right of way are invisible. The appearance in places is much like the sand dunes in Oregon.”

The credulity of newspaper reporters was clearly strained by hearing what sounded like fantastic tales, but which at this remove clearly foreshadowed what would become common sights during the worst years of the Dust Bowl two decades later. In a front page story where skepticism was expressed in the very headline “Dust Buried Kansas Town? But We Have Only a Stranger’s Word for the Story,” The Junction City Union reported that a “traveling man says that the inhabitants of a small town east of Grinfield [sic] had to abandon their houses on account of the dust and sand. In many places in the town only the roofs of the houses…could be seen above the sand and dust.”
Deep dust seems fantastic. The Junction City Union

To be sure, many Great Plains sod houses were dugouts or half-dugouts built half-underground so the dust may not have been deeper than three feet to reach the eaves—but drifts of sand and dust even three feet deep is a lot. 

The traveling man reported accurately, though: such depths of dust were not confined to Kansas. Train men from the Rock Island Railroad, which had a network of tracks through Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, reported “severe dust storms in Oklahoma Sunday” so powerful they “blew grass out of the ground.” Moreover, the “fine dust was caught by the Rock Island’s snow fences along its line, burying them in many places under the big piles of fine dust.”

The editor of The Cimarron News from Boise City in the panhandle of Oklahoma, upwind (southwest) of Kansas, described the Easter 1913 dust storm: “What, in the opinion of many, was the worst storm in years was that of Sunday. The dirt was so thick in the air most of the day that the sun was shut out and had the appearance of having a heavy cloud between you and the sun. The wind was from the southwest to northeast…[and] stirred more dirt than any sandstorm since March 1904.” It was also accompanied by “electricity” that “kept a fellow jumping if he got around any machinery or metal objects.” A prairie fire started about a mile southwest of town and raced toward Boise City, but to everyone’s relief “the wind was so hard and the dirt so thick that the fire was blown out” before it reached town.
Dust storm in Oklahoma. The Cimarron News

Such electrical phenomena were also reported all across western Kansas. The National Weather Service cooperative observer at Tribune, in Greely County in northwest Kansas, documented that “sparks 2 or 3 inches long were drawn from a wire running to a windmill.” In next-door Thomas County, electricity in the storm killed all green vegetation; likewise, in Sheridan County after the dry electrical storm the wheat turned brown. In Scott County, when ends of a broken wire fence were held near each other, sparks would jump between them. 

Raining red mud
Meantime, downwind (northeast) of Kansas, the volumes of high altitude dust got sucked into the monster supercell storm system that brought the deadly and destructive F4 tornadoes that roared through Omaha, Council Bluffs, and other Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri cities and towns. 

In Junction City, Kansas, “the entire sky took on a bright red tinge that lasted for a considerable time”—a color not from the sunset but from “red sand from the south and west parts of the state” that was evident on the streets the next day.

Red dust in Iowa. The Evening Nonpareil

One Iowa spectator reported that the Council Bluffs tornado itself “appeared like a ball of fire having a peculiar reddish appearance.” In Lincoln, the rain itself had a “peculiar” tinge and dried to thick yellowish mud. 

And after the tornadoes roared through with their rain and hail, person after person in Iowa, Nebraska, and Missouri remarked on the brick-colored mud (although sometimes it was also described as yellowish, “chocolate-colored,” or even gray) splattered on buildings, porches, clothing, and streets. Several people marveled at the muddy deposits because they looked so different from the ordinary soil in that area. Despite the unmistakable wind direction from the southwest, one article speculated it came from South Dakota (to the north).

About a week and half after Easter, the Omaha Evening World-Herald reported the most likely solution to the mystery of the rains of reddish mud:

Stewart Gould, a student at the University of Nebraska, writes to his parents in Omaha that the red deposit left by the Easter day storm in Nebraska has been analyzed by professors at the University. They find the soil came from Oklahoma.
This, it is believed, marks the farthest progress north of this red clay, and is a further indication of the intensity of the storm. On Easter Sunday there was a remarkable dust storm in Oklahoma and Kansas, and the soil swirled up from the exposed places in Oklahoma was borne into at least four states, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa. The spattering of houses, porches and walks in Omaha with the ‘red mud’ was a phenomenon of the storm. To the southward the deposits were more abundant. It positively colored the buildings in St. Joseph, and was washed in some places an inch deep on the walks in Lincoln.”
From multiple accounts in more than two dozen newspapers across five states, I have now systematically mapped the extent of the dust storm, associated electrical activity, prairie fires, and rains of reddish mud [see map]. Please note that the regions shown are the minimum extent of the dust and mud: I simply have not yet consulted newspapers in neighboring states—or even all the newspapers in the states I have examined—so absence of evidence should not be construed as evidence of absence.
Map of Easter Sunday March 23, 1913 dust storm, electrical activity (sparks, shocks), prairie fires, and rains of red mud, plotted from multiple accounts in more than two dozen newspapers from five states. Copyright 2014 Trudy E. Bell.

Fascinated by my initial discovery (early 2006) of the reports of the reddish dust brought in by the 1913 Easter tornadoes, as well as by the Dust Bowl period in general, in late 2006 I read Timothy Egan’s then-new gripping bestseller The Worst Hard Time for insights. On page 175 Egan noted that Dalhart residents in the 1930s could tell where a dust storm originated by its color:  “They knew black dust came from Kansas, red from eastern Oklahoma, a yellow-orange from Texas. …People knew that when the wind blew from the southwest, the duster to follow would go through a range of colors….”
The Corbitts and I (left) and Dust Bowl dust, 2007.

In August 2007, my daughter and I deliberately drove through Dalhart, Texas, less than 50 miles south of Boise City, Oklahoma. At a coffee shop we were lucky enough to get into conversation with two long-time Dalhart residents: Kaye Corbitt and her father Dan, who had been a child during the Dust Bowl in the 1930s. They graciously offered to take us to see a sand hill of accumulated Dust Bowl dust from the 1930s, now well tamped down by weathering during the intervening decades. 

Given the proximity to Oklahoma and the possibility that Texas sand and dust might also have been entrained in the 1913 dust storm, the vivid yellowish orange color of this Texas soil may be similar to some of the dust and sand that blew through Kansas or rained out in Nebraska, Iowa, and Missouri on Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913.

Can dust spontaneously ignite wildfires?
 In a word, yes.

The mechanism is something you’ve experienced yourself as a kid: generating static electricity through rubbing something—what scientists and engineers call “triboelectric charging” (the prefix “tribo,” pronounced TRY-boe, is from a Greek word meaning rubbing or friction).

Children love it because it looks like a magic trick: If you blow up a rubber balloon and rub it fast on the hair on your head, you can generate enough charge on the balloon to make it stick to your head or to a wall. Alternatively, if you have long hair and hold the balloon out at arm’s length, strands of hair will lift and point at the balloon. That is because the rubbing separates electrons (negative charges), which go off with the balloon, leaving behind positive charges in your hair. The wall is neutral, but still has enough positive charge to hold onto the balloon. (As an avid long-time Gary Larson fan, I cannot resist illustrating this scientific principle with a totally out-there Far Side cartoon.)

Dry air is an insulator, so the charged ground and charged lofted dust with the insulating air sandwiched in between is effectively a giant capacitor, that is, an electrical energy storage device. When the voltage between the separated charges exceeds the breakdown voltage of the air between, the separated charges reunite with a sudden static discharge—a spark with a flash of light and an audible snap. This happens on a low-humidity winter day when charges on you yourself build up when you walk across a wool carpet in leather-soled shoes, and then you reach out to a metal doorknob or bend down to drink from the stream of water in a drinking fountain—ZAP! You get shocked. On a dry day, you can also see and hear the crackle of sparks from electrostatic discharges when pulling clothes out of a dryer or taking off a sweater.
The dust storm did it. Topeka Daily Capital

In a dust storm, the millions of sand particles bouncing (technically known as “saltating” based on a French word for jumping) across the ground collect electrons; as updrafts carry these excess negative charges high into the atmosphere, the ground below is left positively charged. Static charge can also build up on tall metal structures not connected to an electrical ground, such as steel windmills mounted on wooden supports (wood is an insulator) as described in Monthly Weather Review. 

Eventually the buildup of separated charges is so great that they reunite in flash—either as a spark to another conductor to ground (such as a person standing nearby), or even from cloud to cloud or cloud to earth as bolts of lightning.

Not only can dust storms indeed become electrically charged, but the electric fields can become enormous, triggering static discharges and ignition, even if the dust itself is not of a particularly flammable material. No surprise that clouds of charged coal dust trigger explosions in mines and plants; but clouds of sugar dust, flour dust, sawdust, instant milk and other powdered materials also have ignited or exploded from electrostatic discharges. Many industrial safety advocates are are now urging the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to develop standards to control combustible dust in industry.

In short, either lightning or sparks discharged from wires or metal structures charged during a severe dust storm can indeed ignite wildfires if dry vegetation is nearby--and likely did on Easter Sunday, March 23, 1913.

‘Blood rains’
And what about all those reports of rains of red mud?
The Lincoln Daily Star

They were absolutely real. By no means were the 1913 red rains the first or the last. A decade earlier, both “snow dust” and muddy rains were documented by the National Weather Service. 

Moreover, they still happen today. Called “blood rains” in some parts of the world, they have been documented for centuries in the Mediterranean, southern India, and Europe, when strong winds loft dust from the Sahara in those directions. “Colored rain (or snow) occurs when dust plumes and storm systems meet, though only when raindrops fall through a dust plume beneath the level of the clouds,” explains NASA’s Earth Observatory. The dust from Africa even reaches South America.

”Red rains only occur if dust particles contain enough iron oxide” NASA Earth Observatory explains, meaning the particular iron oxide that forms common red rust and makes the planet Mars red (in contrast, the black iron oxide hematite is so beautiful it is made into jewelry). Red rains are the rarest of colored rains, but still, apparently researchers at the University of Arizona maintain a database with details about more than 500 such events since 1900. 

Next time: Happy 1913 Centennial Year +2: Books, Index—and Emmy!

Selected references
For access to 1913 newspapers on microfilm, gratitude is expressed to the Council Bluffs Public Library in Iowa (visited in 2006), the Kansas City Public Library in Missouri (2007), the Kansas State Archives in Topeka (2007), the Nebraska State Historical Society in Lincoln (2007), the Oklahoma Historical Society in Oklahoma City (2007), and the Omaha Public Library in Nebraska (2006 and 2014).

The Salina Daily Union
Dust Storms from 1850–1900 were catalogued by historian James C. Malin in three back-to-back 1946 issues of the Kansas Historical Quarterly totaling some 70 pages: Part I 1850–1860 14(2): 129–133 (May); Part II 1861–1880 14(3): 265–296 (August); Part III 1881–1900 14(4): 391–413 (November). Despite a reference in an article “Dust Bowl: Causes and Effects” by W. S. Chepil in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 12(3): 108–111 to another 1946 KHQ Malin article cataloguing dust storms from 1900–1950, the page  numbers cited go to unrelated content. This reference may be spurious as I have never found it, nor could Kansas Historical Society reference archivist Lin Fredericksen, or it may refer to a manuscript that was never published.

The fascinating properties of rock dust and sand came to my attention when I wrote a sequence of 18 stories on lunar and Martian dust from 2002 through 2008 for the popular Science@NASA website plus three magazine features for Air & Space/Smithsonian, Astronomy, and The Bent. See especially "'True Grit': Unearthly Dust," The Bent, 97 (3): 14–20, Summer 2006 .

For more about red precipitation over the Great Plains before 1913, see the detailed analysis of dust that fell with snow January 11–12, 1895 in “Snow Dust,” in Monthly Weather Review 23: 15–19, January 1895. For a description of muddy rain four years later (April 30, 1899) over Iowa, Nebraska, and South Dakota, see “Rains of Sand, Dust, and Mud,”  in Monthly Weather Review 27: 157–158, April 1899. 

The author in the Great Dunes, Colorado, in
2006 while researching a feature on dust
for Air & Space/Smithsonian
A nice, short primer on dust storms by a retired Air Force meteorologist Melody Higdon is “Dust-Up! Veda Giezentanner’s article “In Dugouts and Sod Houses” in The Chronicles of Oklahoma 39:140–149 describes the construction of early dugout homes on the Great Plains. For more on the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, read Egan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co. 2006.

One of the better descriptions of the kids’ balloon static electricity experiment and why it works is “Make a Balloon Stick to the Wall Like ‘Magic’.” For a more detailed exploration of triboelectric charging with different materials and potentially dangerous examples in real life, see “Triboelectic Charging of Common Objects.” A primer on household static electricity by the National Association of Certified Home Inspectors is here.

Cleveland State University physics professor Jearl D. Walker discusses electrical discharges in dust storms along with links to illustrations and videos in his blog The Flying Circus of Physics (about halfway down the page—search on the word “dust”). He draws attention to lightning in a nighttime dust storm or “haboob” in this 53-second YouTube video The high winds of a 2006 dust storm in Saudi Arabia as well as the experience of being enveloped in it and the profound darkness within is captured in this 1:21-minute YouTube video. See also the amazing structure of this Oklahoma dust storm shot in 2001

By the way, Walker himself is quite a trip—I first ran across him when he first published his book The Flying Circus of Physics when I was a young editor for Scientific American; he later ran the magazine’s “Amateur Scientist” column after the venerable C. L. “Red” Stong passed away (R.I.P.). One of his claims to fame is personally demonstrating the physics behind lying on a bed of nails and walking across hot coals.

Engineers and scientists might enjoy Chapter  4 “Wind-Blown Sand Electrification” in Mechanics of Wind-blown Sand Movements by Xiaojing Zheng, New York: Springer 2009.

Bell, Trudy E., The Great Dayton Flood of 1913, Arcadia Publishing, 2008. Picture book of nearly 200 images of the flood in Dayton, rescue efforts, recovery, and the construction of the Miami Conservancy District dry dams for flood control, including several pictures of Cox. (Author’s shameless marketing plug: Copies are available directly from me for the cover price of $21.99 plus $4.00 shipping, complete with inscription of your choice; for details, e-mail me), or order from the publisher.