Are We Headed for Another Dust Bowl?

The devastating drought of the 1930s forever changed American agriculture. Could those conditions return?

(Associated Press)

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 By late afternoon, with the barometer falling rapidly, the temperature had dropped 50 degrees, heralding a cold front moving south from Canada. A huge black cloud approached from the North. “It had the appearance of a mammoth waterfall in reverse—color as well as form,” Grey would later write. “The apex of the cloud was plumed and curling, seething and tumbling over itself from north to south.” The storm swept across Oklahoma and into Texas, bringing total darkness for 40 minutes and partial for another three hours.

 The day after this “Black Sunday,” Robert Geiger, an Associated Press reporter from Denver, sent a dispatch about the storm to the Washington Evening Star: “Three little words,” he wrote “rule life in the dust bowl of the continent—if it rains.” Without intending to do so, Geiger had given the disaster, with its ongoing drought, devastated farms and frequent dust storms, its name: the Dust Bowl.

 Dust was dirty, for sure, but it could also be deadly. In the 1930s, hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of people perished from “dust pneumonia” caused by dust clogging their lungs. And dust is worrisome in other ways—it can set off asthma attacks, and it can pick up and carry diseases and pollutants. “There’s public health costs” when it comes to dust, Okin notes.

 The Dust Bowl inhabitants didn’t know at the time, but the dust was also making the drought worse, Seager and his colleagues would discover decades later. All that dust kicked up into the atmosphere reduced the amount of energy from the sun that could reach the surface. That energy does more than simply provide heat; it also drives the planet’s water cycle. With less energy, there was less evaporation and less water making it back up into the atmosphere. With fewer plants around to bring water from the ground into the air—a process called evapotranspiration—the water cycle was completely out of whack, temperatures rose and the area of the drought expanded. “The dust storms themselves prevented more precipitation from happening,” Seager says.

 The dust storms finally began to let up near the end of the 1930s, when more regular rains returned and the efforts of the federal government began to take effect. In 1935, the Black Sunday dust storm had driven east to Washington, D.C., bringing its gloom to the nation’s capitol just as the U.S. Congress was considering soil conservation legislation. Less than two weeks later, they passed the law creating the Soil Conservation Service, a government agency devoted to helping farmers combat the factors that contributed to the Dust Bowl in the first place.

 Because most farms at the time were small, farmers had been unable, or unwilling, to implement techniques to prevent erosion, such as terracing and contour plowing. Even if they had the funds for such projects, they could still get inundated with dust from farms upwind. But with emergency funding from the Soil Conservation Service, farmers could afford to implement the necessary measures. The government stepped up in other ways, too, planting “shelterbelts” of trees to lessen the winds as they blew across the vast plains, buying up marginal lands that were unsuitable for cultivation and requiring sustainable grazing practices.

 As the 20th century progressed, farming changed. “They irrigated in the 1950s,” Seager notes. “Now, when droughts come along, you can try to compensate for a lack of precipitation by pumping up ground water and irrigating.” 

 The consolidation of farms—from 1950 to 1970, average farm size doubled—enabled more conservation. And the invention of no-till farming further preserved soil. Plowing the land had been necessary to aerate soil, free up nutrients and get rid of weeds, but it also led to erosion and dust. No-till farming avoids that damage by planting directly on the remains of the previous season’s crops. (The technique is not entirely conservation friendly, however, as it requires chemicals to kill weeds.) The development of drought-tolerant crops now promises even greater ability to survive a more arid climate.

 The United States weathered severe droughts in the 1950s and late 1980s, without the damage seen in the Dust Bowl years due to conservation efforts and the changes in farming techniques. But similar conditions could return, some scientists have noted. “In a certain sense, we’re in a dust bowl,” Okin says. “If the next three years or five years [are] a drought, even if it’s not that bad, if we start seeing continual dust storms, then that would be really no different from what was the Dust Bowl.”

 But even if the current drought ends quickly, climatologists are predicting that anthropogenic climate change will bring even drier times in the future for many of these states. “We expect that the southern part of the United States and south Plains get drier over the current century,” Seager says, “so in places like Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, yes, you would expect events like this to become more likely.”


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