Global Warming/Climate ChangeSoil Erosion & ContaminationWater Contaminaton & Loss

Dust Bowl Revisited

by Janet Larsen, Earth Policy Institute

Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Library of Congress

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.

Credit: D.L Kernodle, Library of Congress

In The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan describes the topsoil loss, how a “rich cover that had taken several thousand years to develop was disappearing day by day.” The sodbusters had quickly illuminated the dangerous hubris in the 1909 Bureau of Soils proclamation: “The soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses. It is the one resource that cannot be exhausted; that cannot be used up.” The rechristened Great Plains looked like it would revert back to its original name: the Great American Desert.

When a series of dust storms reached far-flung Washington, DC, in the spring of 1935, a reluctant Congress was finally convinced to allocate resources to help stabilize the soil. With government subsidies and direction from the newly created Soil Conservation Service, practices were introduced to help hold down the earth. Grasses were replanted; shelter belts of trees were planted to slow the persistent winds; contour farming or terracing was used to farm in line with the natural shape of the land; strip cropping was used to leave some protective cover on the soil; and crop rotations and fallow periods allowed the land to rest.

While some of the Dust Bowl land never recovered, the settled communities becoming ghost towns, many of the once-affected areas have become major food producers. By 1933 wheat production in Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado was slashed by nearly three-quarters from its 1931 high of 411 million bushels, taking until 1947 to reach that level again. In 2012, the wheat output of these four states exceeds 700 million bushels, a third of the U.S. wheat harvest.

After World War II, well-drilling and pumping technologies allowed farmers to tap into the Ogallala aquifer, a vast reservoir of water beneath the Plains, stretching from southern South Dakota through the Texas Panhandle. Irrigation expanded, with center-pivot sprinklers creating the green circles overlain on brown squares that are familiar to anyone who has flown over the central United States.

In recent decades irrigation has allowed the traditional Corn Belt to move westward onto drier lands. Kansas, for instance, sometimes called “the Wheat State,” harvesting one-sixth of the U.S. crop, now produces as much corn as it does wheat. The wheat is primarily rainfed, but more than half the corn is irrigated.

As extraction of the underground water has increased, however, water tables have fallen. The depletion is particularly concerning in the Central and Southern Plains where there is virtually no replenishment of the aquifer from rainfall, foreshadowing an end to the use of this finite resource. In the former Dust Bowl states, irrigation had its boom, but in many areas it is beyond its peak. With wells going dry, some farmers have returned to the more-common rainfed wheat farming, which typically yields far less than with irrigation; others have gotten out of wheat all together.

In Kansas the average drop in the water table is 23 feet (7 meters), but drops of 150 feet or more have been reported. The fall in water tables is even greater in the Texas Panhandle. Statewide, Texas’ irrigated area is down more than 20 percent from its high nearly 40 years ago. Only recently, after the water table fell fast during the back-to-back droughts, have limits been placed on withdrawals from individual wells there to slow the depletion. According to scientists at the University of Texas at Austin and the U.S. Geological Survey, if current rates of extraction continue, irrigation over a third of the southern High Plains will be untenable within 30 years.

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. So rainfed crops are in trouble, too. Models agree that with the global warming in store absent dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, much of the western United States—from Kansas to California—could enter into a long-term state of dryness, what physicist Joseph Romm has termed “dust-bowlification.”

With soil conservation measures in place, when drought revisited the Plains in the 1950s, the mid-1970s, the early 2000s, and again in 2011-2012—when Texas and Oklahoma baked in their hottest summers on record—a full-blown Dust Bowl did not develop. But will the ground hold forever? The United States is by far the world’s leading grain exporter; thus the fate of the nation’s “breadbasket” matters for food prices, and food security, around the globe.

While our understanding of and respect for the soil is greater now than it was at the turn of the last century, erosion still exceeds new soil formation on most acres. The combination of higher temperatures, prolonged drought, and irrigation limitations turns the prospects for continued large-scale crop production on the Plains grim. In case going through the worst recession since the Great Depression was not enough to remind Americans of hard times in the country’s past, climate change and the pressures of population and consumption growth pushing farmers to produce ever more food on limited land will make it harder to avoid a repeat of history.

One Comment

  1. FIRST let me say how much I have enjoyed, and gained useful knowledge from, the Permaculture DVDs recently purchased. But this time I want to refer you folk to a series of articles written many years ago by biologist, philosopher and social crediter Dr. Geoffrey Dobbs. I am sending you a snippet from the series now called “The Local World” which he first published in a little journal called “Home”.

    It relates to the report of ‘the dust bowls’ mentioned in the above article but brings into the discussion the issue of money/finance and the major role it plays in today’s world.

    He writes: To begin with, please bear with a little necessary autobiography. Hitherto, in writing I have tried to avoid the first person singular, on the grounds that it was the content and not the writer to which I wanted to draw the reader’s attention. Here also the intention is the same, but I am bound to abandon this rule since I cannot try to re-establish the continuity of the present and the past without referring to my own experience.

    Forty years and more ago I wrote a series of essays under the title “On Planning the Earth” which appeared serially in a weekly paper, though they were not brought out as a book until 1951. At the time they constituted the sole published criticism of and opposition on fundamental grounds to the massively urged policy of large-scale, centralised land-planning, as represented particularly by the Tennessee Valley Authority, and propagandised by some 3500 books and pamphlets, of which the best-known was TVA-Democracy on the March, by David Lilienthal, the Chairman of the Authority – a Penguin Special with 208 pages of advocacy, 8 pages of photographs, for 9d (=3.75p).

    I remember that this somewhat inverted assault upon a David turned-Goliath was greeted by the Daily Mail with an unexpected, if jeering headline. The book sold a few hundred copies which soon descended to a trickle and about half the edition was remaindered. Twenty-five years later when events had rubbed in its message with quite appalling force, it attracted the award of a Senior Visiting Scholarship at an Institute in Menlo Park. California, with residence on Stanford University campus, coinciding with the visit of Professor von Hayek and his School of ‘Austrian’ economists to the same institute; which is quite another story.

    The first Part of “On Planning the Earth,” was written and published in 1944 and was concerned with defending the soil against wholesale interference by remote financial and political agencies.
    “You cannot enforce good farming by laws, restrictions and penalties. Such an idea can arise only from a childish misconception of the complexity of the links between men, animals, plants, micro-organisms, and the soil.”

    The Second Part was written after a delay of five years, during which the Tennessee Valley with its huge hydro-electric power had produced the first Atom Bomb, and its Chairman had become the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, and a key member of the committee which made the decision to produce the H-Bomb. So much, then, for all that splendid and heavily financed ecological jargon about grass-roots democracy and conservation which was used to ‘sell’ the TVA in the 1930s and has now become so innocently fashionable among the ‘Greens.’

    The book, as it stands, has a message for today in that it puts on contemporary record the origins of the major menace to our lives and our planet which now arouses such passionate protest. It puts the case for ‘smallness’ and the dangers of ‘ ‘bigness’ twenty years before E. F. Schumacher coined that luminous phrase Small is Beautiful.

    It puts forward an ecologist’s and soil microbiologist’s defence of the integrity of the soil more than a decade before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring shook the world and initiated the ‘Green’ movement.

    It is a voice crying in what was then a wilderness, which had something to say that was rejected then, and is now ever, more urgently needed if this now fashionable and growing movement is not to follow the path of all previous movements for human advancement which have grown too great and felt the temptations of power..

    Best wishes Betty Luks

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