The Great Plains Dust Bowl Revisited

Dust storms in the dust-bowl states of the 1930s were the result of poor soil conservation practices. Drought and falling water tables adjacent to the Ogallala aquifer may be keys to future dust storms on the Great Plains.


| November 16, 2012



dust storm

 Beyond the farm, climatologists are making it clear that the recent droughts are exactly the sort of event predicted to come more frequently as the planet heats up. 


Photo By Fotolia/Ashley Whitworth

The following article is posted with permission from Earth Policy Institute.

On October 18, 2012, the Associated Press reported that “a massive dust storm swirling reddish-brown clouds over northern Oklahoma triggered a multi-vehicle accident along a major interstate…forcing police to shut down the heavily traveled roadway amid near blackout conditions.” Farmers in the region had recently plowed fields to plant winter wheat. The bare soil — desiccated by the relentless drought that smothered nearly two-thirds of the continental United States during the summer and still persists over the Great Plains — was easily lifted by the passing strong winds, darkening skies from southern Nebraska, through Kansas, and into Oklahoma.

Observers could not help but harken back to the 1930s Dust Bowl that ultimately covered 100 million acres in western Kansas, the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles, northeastern New Mexico, and southeastern Colorado. Yet when asked if that was the direction the region was headed, Oklahoma’s Secretary of Agriculture Jim Reese was unequivocal: “That will never happen again.”

In the early decades of the twentieth century, earnest settlers of the semi-arid Plains, along with opportunistic “suitcase farmers” out to make a quick dollar, plowed under millions of acres of native prairie grass. Assured that “rain follows the plow,” and lured by government incentives, railroad promises, and hopes of carving out a place for their families, these farmers embraced the newly available tractors, powerful plows, and mechanized harvesters to turn over the sod that had long sustained Native American tribes and millions of bison.

The plowing began during years of rain, and early harvests were good. High wheat prices, buoyed by demand and government guarantees during the First World War, encouraged ever more land to be turned over. But then the Great Depression hit. The price of wheat collapsed and fields were abandoned. When the drought arrived in the early 1930s, the soils blew, their fertility stolen by the relentless wind. Stripped of its living carpet, freed from the intricate matrix of perennial prairie grass roots, the earth took flight.

Clouds as tall as mountains and black as night rolled over the land. Regular dust storms pummeled the homesteaders; the big ones drew notice when they clouded the sun in New York City and Washington, DC, even sullying ships hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic. Dunes formed and spread, burying railroad tracks, fences, and cars. “Dust pneumonia” claimed lives, often those of children. People fled the land in droves.





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