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BY GEORGE: Remembering The Dust Bowl

Droughts occur throughout North America, and in any given year, at least one region is experiencing drought conditions. The major drought of the 20th century, in terms of duration and spatial extent, is considered to be the 1930s Dust Bowl drought which lasted up to 8 years in some areas of the Great Plains. The 1930s Dust Bowl drought, memorialized in John Steinbeck's novel, The Grapes of Wrath, was so severe, widespread, and lengthy, that it resulted in a mass migration of millions of people from the Great Plains to the western U.S. in search of jobs and better living conditions.

Just how unusual was the Dust Bowl drought? Was this a rare event or should we expect drought of similar magnitude to occur in the future? Rainfall records used to evaluate drought extend back 100 years, and are too short to answer these questions. However, these questions can be answered by analyzing records from tree rings, lake and dune sediments, archaeological remains, historical documents and other environmental indicators, which can extend our understanding of past climate far beyond the 100-year instrumental record.

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. These wind-driven events were referred to as  “Black Blizzards".  Ultimately it was pretty much determined that humans, by stripping the land of the grasses and other native plants that held down the soil (think endless cultivation of corn and beans) set the stage for what become the disaster.

The agricultural and economic damage devastated residents of the Great Plains. The Dust Bowl drought worsened the already severe economic crises that many Great Plains farmers faced. In the early 1930s, many farmers were trying to recover from economic losses suffered during the Great Depression. To compensate for these losses, they began to increase their crop yields. High production drove prices down, forcing farmers to keep increasing their production to pay for both their equipment and their land. When the drought hit, farmers could no longer produce enough crops to pay off loans or even pay for essential needs. Even with Federal emergency aid, many Great Plains farmers could not withstand the economic crisis of the drought. Many farmers were forced off of their land, with one in ten farms changing possession at the peak of the farm transfers.

A great book that looks at the history, and delves deep into the lives of the people that lived there, (and some of which still do) is called “The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Eagan.

In the aftermath of the Dust Bowl, it was clear that many factors contributed to the severe impact of this drought. A better understanding of the interactions between the natural elements (climate, plants, and soil) and human-related elements (agricultural practices, economics, and social conditions) of the Great Plains was needed. Lessons were learned, and because of this drought, farmers adopted new cultivation methods to help control soil erosion in dry land ecosystems. Subsequent droughts in this region have had less impact due to these cultivation practices.

By: George Elliott