The Dangers Of The Dust Bowl Included Electrocution By Hug

Illustration for article titled The Dangers Of The Dust Bowl Included Electrocution By Hug

During the Dust Bowl, people living in northern Texas and Oklahoma had to contend with storms of flour-fine dust that could last for days. The dust blasted through the cracks in window frames and under doors, blinded people, and smothered cattle to death. But it also made people into walking tasers.

Children would run up to their mothers for a hug, and both mother and child would wake up on the ground, knocked unconscious by a massive static shock. Two men shaking hands could knock each other out. Any person who had been out in a dust storm for any length of time could be a danger.

Illustration for article titled The Dangers Of The Dust Bowl Included Electrocution By Hug

Physicists know that sand storms can provoke lightning, but no one knew how static charge could build up during a "duster." Troy Shinbrot at Rutgers University recently came up with a model that showed how particles of dust could build up large static charges. He didn't believe in his idea, until he calculated that it would only work when the particles reached a certain density in the air. When testing the theory out with glass beads, he saw that once they reached a certain density the level of charge shot up.

Here's how it works. Think of dust particles as little globes, each with two hemispheres. When the particles become polarized, one hemisphere becomes positive and the other hemisphere becomes negative. Since positive charges attract negative charges, a negatively charged hemisphere on one dust particle can attract a positively charged hemisphere on another dust particle. When they meet, they neutralize by transferring the electron from the negatively charged hemisphere to the positively charged hemisphere.

Remember, the hemispheres are part of larger particles. The larger particles already were neutral, with a positive and a negative charge. So when its positively charged hemisphere acquired an electron, the entire particle acquired an overall negative charge. This process could be repeated until the particle built up a major charge.

People could build up major charges as well. As could cars and buildings. As dust storms came through, they could short out the electrical systems on people's cars. They'd blank out radio stations. And, yes, they would occasionally directly strike people with lightning.


Image: Library of Congress.

[Via The Worst Hard Time, Swirling Dust Shocks Physicist.]


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Reader's guide for young people: the dust bowl was a period in the 1930s of extreme weather in the central US plains, centered on the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, featuring cataclysmic dust storms. It was brought about by widespread destructive farming practices and an extended draught. Over 100 million acres of farmland was destroyed, thousands were killed, and millions made homeless. These storms caused a massive migration of poor farmers to the west, principally to California, which continues to shape the demographics of that state to this day. Government-led reforms in farming practices, and moderating weather ended the dust bowl by around 1940. The government extensively documented the dust bowl, commissioning photographers including Dorothea Lange and Arthur Rothstein. Many of their photographs have become iconic of the period.