Written by Ashwin Bhaskar

The grainy black-and-white photos left behind are among the stark reminders of an otherwise forgotten event in American history: the Dust Bowl. A farmer’s young son covering his face with his elbow, gasping for air in Cimarron County, Oklahoma. A young mother of several children locked in a grim stare into an uncertain future. Mask-wearing Red Cross volunteers in Liberal, Kansas, looking more like character actors in a sci-fi movie about biological weapons than workers in a disaster zone. Ominous, foreboding dark clouds of dust swirling their way into Prowers County, Colorado; Stratford, Texas; Goodwell, Oklahoma; Garden City and Elkhart, Kansas.

Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas. NOAA George E. Marsh Album, theb1365, Historic C&GS Collection, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Dust Bowl or the Dirty Thirties, as they are called in popular culture, was a period of intense dust storms that resulted in ecological, economic, and agricultural damage to parts of North America for several years starting around 1930.

The term “Dust Bowl” was conjured up by AP reporter Robert Geiger, who used it to describe the destruction caused by the dust storms. The worst hit areas were parts of New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma and the Texas Panhandle.

The Dust Bowl, easily among the worst environmental disasters to strike the nation, was brought about by a combination of misguided policy, human farming activity, and climate changes.   

First came policy. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided land free of charge for any American citizen as long as they settled and cultivated the land for five years. Millions of people migrated to the plains as a result.

The plains are vast windy areas lacking trees. The climate is semiarid with little to no rain most of the year. All the moisture-thirsty soil in the plains that had endured and survived past droughts were being held together by native grasses. The people migrating to the plains as a consequence of the Homestead Act started cultivating the area using practices that were more suitable for European or Midwest/Eastern US farmlands than the plains. Millions of acres of native sod were plowed under by homesteaders across the great plains in the subsequent years, mostly for wheat.

Combine the misguided farming practice of plowing up native grasslands to support widespread crop planting with long periods of extreme drought, incessant winds and extreme temperatures, and you had a recipe for an environment disaster of massive proportions. 

This invasive plowing of the native-grass-bound topsoil meant that, during the cyclical drought of the 1930s, no anchors were left to keep the soil in place. Hence, the soil dried up, turned to dust, and blew away in humongous clouds of destruction.

In 1934, a two-day storm swirled all the way to Chicago and blanketed it with dust. Other cities to the east, such as Cleveland, Buffalo, Boston and New York City were affected as well. On April 14, 1935, known as “Black Sunday,” the dust storms caused extensive damage and reduced visibility to a few feet in many parts of the Great Plains. 

By 1935, hundreds of people were fleeing widespread hunger and poverty on their farms and seeking refuge in various parts of the country. Several hundred-thousand people were left homeless. The mass migration from the Great Plains to the west meant that the weak and unhealthy often fell ill and died of dust pneumonia and malnutrition. Between the Dust Bowl years of 1930 and 1940, more than three million people moved out of the areas that were increasingly inhospitable.

Many of the fleeing migrants relocated to California, thus increasing the population in most of its valley towns. The sudden arrival of desperate migrants overwhelmed schools and services in towns around the state. Social and welfare services were often stretched to the breaking point. The Dust Bowl migrants were often discriminated against and ended up in situations where they had little food, shelter, or comfort. The Farm Security Administration built federal camps that provided basic housing but often did not come close to meeting the needs of the dislocated Dust Bowl populations.

The Dust Bowl and the considerable suffering of the human and animal populations that were caught up in its swirling grasp were documented by photographers, many working for the federal government. Dorothea Lange, for example, captured many of the disturbing images of destitute families that later became indelible historical artifacts of the era. 

John Steinbeck, whose 1939 novel, the Grapes of Wrath, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and Farm Security Administration worker Sanora Babb were among the authors who researched and wrote about the migrant workers forced out of their homes and farmland by the Dust Bowl. Folk singer Woody Guthrie sang about his experiences with the Dust Bowl refugees in the 1940 album, Dust Bowl Ballads. The plight of migrant farm workers and the hardships encountered by formerly proud, independent farmers forced out of their land and livelihood were beautifully immortalized in “The Dust Bowl,” an American television documentary directed by Ken Burns.

As a consequence of the Dust Bowl, the United States federal government abolished homesteading in 1934 and established the Agriculture Department’s Soil Conservation Service, which introduced techniques in soil conservation against wind in drought-affected areas. The government bought up millions of acres of farms and converted them into national grasslands by replanting native grass. 

The various government drought relief programs introduced as emergency measures during the period are credited with saving much of the affected population. The programs included providing emergency supplies, cash, and animal feed and transport. In addition, medical facilities to meet emergency healthcare needs were established. Access was provided to federal government approved markets for farm products and emergency need-based loans for farm machinery maintenance. The government also rolled out the supply chain necessary to provide technology and know-how necessary to promote better land management strategies.

Ultimately, the people who chose to stay survived through sheer perseverance and power of will despite being faced with debilitating health effects, diminished incomes, loss of livestock, and the physical and emotional toll the dust bowl had on their lives. The dust bowl and its associated impacts finally began to diminish during the spring of 1938 and into 1941 with the return of normal rainfall. 

A key benefit of Dust Bowl government intervention was the focus on institutional research and extension services. New erosion monitoring and management technologies that minimize surface disturbance and reduce erosion were introduced, and new farming techniques that advocate protection of topsoil have proven beneficial; further, this soil conservation and land management research has had widespread adoption in other parts of the world as well.

It was in these years that the Natural Resources Conservation Service was established and began to stress soil conservation measures. A number of countermeasures to drought started to get adopted in the years that followed.  Land management practices and better irrigation mechanisms evolved rapidly. Diverse, drought tolerant varieties of crops were introduced, and government supported crop insurance became popular.

Additional reforms were based on studies of vulnerability of farm land to drought conditions, like promoting larger reservoirs, more efficient water distribution and the gradual phasing out of vulnerable agricultural lands from crop production. Lessons learned would prove beneficial in the 1950s’ drought, i.e., the techniques that many farmers implemented right after the dust bowl helped prevent the 1950s’ drought from reaching the severity of the 1930s’ drought.

However, according to a new study in Geophysical Research Letters by Lambert, Hallar et al., dust storms are again rearing their ugly heads in the Great Plains and have become more frequent and intense over the past 20 years, spurred on by frequent droughts and the unrelenting encroachment of croplands. Accelerating climate changes are increasing the risk of droughts, and grasslands are being plowed up again, according to the authors of the study. 

In another study published in Nature Plants,  Michael Glotter and Joshua Elliott of the Computation Institute found that a drought similar in scale to the Dust Bowl would have the same kind of debilitating effects on U.S. agriculture today, despite the many advances made in the areas of land management and agriculture practices. The authors had expected to find the system as it exists today to be much more resilient because a good percentage of agriculture is now irrigated in the United States, and because corn production in drought-prone areas such as Oklahoma and West Texas have been discontinued but discovered that was not the case.

These studies suggest that the lessons from the Dust Bowl still haven’t been absorbed, and eventually, the volatile ingredients of worsening droughts and mismanaged soils will likely spark another Dust Bowl in the heartland of America.


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