During the 1930′s, a multi-year drought ruined crops in Texas, Oklahoma, and several Midwestern States. The dry land, stripped of both wild grasses and crops, gave up its soil to high winds in the form of vast storms of dust:
The Dust Bowl drought was a natural disaster that severely affected much of the United States during the 1930s. The drought came in three waves, 1934, 1936, and 1939-40, but some regions of the High Plains experienced drought conditions for as many as eight years. The “dust bowl” effect was caused by sustained drought conditions compounded by years of land management practices that left topsoil susceptible to the forces of the wind. The soil, depleted of moisture, was lifted by the wind into great clouds of dust and sand which were so thick they concealed the sun for several days at a time. They were referred to as” black blizzards”. (North American Drought: A Paleo Perspective)
One of the main causes of these large dust storms is a long drought that leaves the land bare. The soil dries and the winds lift vast quantities of soil into the air. That was then, this is now. So this prepping and survival blog post asks: Could another Dust Bowl occur today? To some extent, it is already occurring. This 2011 article from Accuweather.com cites a number of dust storms that occurred in that year:
“The most recent dust storm in Lubbock, Texas, along with other large storms near Tucson, Ariz. in early October and the haboobs in Phoenix during July, to name a few, certainly are signs of the times. Much of the region has been in the throes of a drought since last fall. Phoenix only receives an average of 8.50 inches of rain per year. However, as dry is the place normally is, only 4.50 inches of rain has fallen since October 1, 2010. Lubbock has received only about 30 percent of their normal rainfall since Oct. 1, 2010, which is a mere 6 inches or so, compared to a normal of 20.50 inches.” (Is Another Dust Bowl in the Works?)
The drought of 2011 continued and widened in 2012, devastating the corn and soy crops. The drought did lessen in some areas, but it became much more severe in the Midwestern States. The dust storms have continued into 2012. A dust storm in Oklahoma shut down an interstate highway. And a dust storm in December 2012 hit west Texas.
A November 2012 article in the Smithsonian Magazine asks: Are We Headed for Another Dust Bowl? — “The devastating drought of the 1930s forever changed American agriculture. Could those conditions return?”
” Nearly 60 percent of the United States, mostly in the center and west of the country, is currently experiencing moderate to exceptional drought conditions, according to the National Drought Monitor, and the drought is expected to persist into 2013 for many of those already parched states. The effects of these dry times have come in many forms: The costs of agricultural products, including beef and corn, and the food products derived from them have risen. Barges are having difficulty traversing the Mississippi River. Dry soil is causing the foundations of some homes to crack and leak. And dust storms, like the one in Texas, are echoing the 1930s Dust Bowl, the subject of a new documentary by Ken Burns that premieres on PBS this weekend.”
The article concludes that weather conditions today are similar to the drought of the 1930′s. If the current drought continues, more dust storms are inevitable. But it is uncertain whether the storms will become as vast and as devastating as during the height of the dust bowl.
A NY Times commentary asks: How Can We Prevent Another Dust Bowl?
“Farming practices have improved a lot since then, so it would take a much bigger drought to have the same effect. But we know it can happen, even without man’s help…. At this point, we still have a ways to go before things dry out enough over a long enough period of time to give us another Dust Bowl.”
Can we lessen the effects of the drought with increased irrigation? Not really. The water for irrigation has to come from the water table, and the water table is ultimately replenished by precipitation. As the drought continues, drawing more water from underground aquifers, like the Ogallala Aquifer becomes more difficult. The Ogallala Aquifer is one of the world’s largest, covering 8 Midwestern States. But its water supply has been substantially reduced by the ever increasing use of wells and irrigation in agriculture.
Better agricultural techniques have lessened the risk of another Dust Bowl, but if the drought continues in its current severe and widespread form, we could see larger more frequent dust storms, in more places.