Is America Headed for Another Dust Bowl?

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A Brief History

On July 24, 1935, the heat wave aspect of the Great Dust Bowl hit its high point, with temperatures soaring in the Midwest and on the Great Plains, cities such as Chicago reaching 109 °F and Milwaukee hitting 104 °F.  Striking the central United States during the Great Depression (1929 to 1939-1941, depending on interpretation) made the environmental catastrophe of drought and heat all the worse.  The enormous increase in the use of motorized tractors plowing the prairie, replacing tough prairie grasses with roots that held the soil together with loosely plowed earth and food crops, the land became highly susceptible to erosion caused by water and wind.  People seeking to take advantage of the Homestead Act thronged to the plains to start farms, lulled into complacency with abnormally good rains in the first couple decades of the 20th Century.  With the dry conditions prevalent during the 1930’s, coupled with unusually high temperatures, crops failed, and the land was laid bare to the wind, which blew soil in enormous clouds that blotted out the sky and reached all the way to the East Coast.  Millions of tons of topsoil were lost, farmers were driven off the land, and 100 million acres of land were affected.  The question is, “Are we going to experience this catastrophe all over again?”

Update, July 26, 2019:  Weather reports from Europe this week show that on Thursday, July 25,2019, many cities hit their record high temperature, including the highest ever recorded for the countries of Germany and France (114.6 degrees Farenheit, or 45.9 Celsius for the metric minded).  London’s Heathrow Airport recorded a blistering 98.4 degrees F, while Edinburgh hit 89 degrees F.  Meanwhile, the Netherlands reached a new record high temperature of 105 degrees F.  To give this report perspective, please note that London, England, is situated at 51 degrees North Latitude, about as far North as right between Winnipeg, Manitoba and Edmonton, Alberta.  Edinburgh, Scotland, is located even farther North, about 56 degrees North Latitude.  Look at a map!  Most of Europe is not equipped with air conditioning, because in the past they have not needed it, but now they do.  In fact, July of 2019 is being called the hottest July in recorded history.  Not just the hottest July, but the hottest month ever (across the world) that scientists are able to determine!  While Europe is broiling, glaciers in Alaska and Antarctica are melting at unprecedented rates, even though just about every year lately scientists report new records for glacial melting.  Undoubtedly, something is going on!

Digging Deeper

Some researchers believe we are already entering a new Dust Bowl era.  Drought is countered by increased severity of flooding, both of which contribute to ruined crops and reduced yields.  Temperatures are also on the rise, according to climate scientists, regardless of the naysayers and fringe minority.  (In fact, the US EPA, contrary to the assertions of the Trump Administration, warns of increasing temperatures and drought in the Great Plains.)  Conservation measures such as planting windbreaks and applying no-till soil conservation helps to prevent a new Dust Bowl, but other factors, such as climate change might overwhelm such efforts to prevent disaster.

Aerial view of field windbreaks in North Dakota.  Photograph by Erwin Cole, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The joker in the deck that looms over the Great Plains is not just the water that falls from rain and snow, and the melting snow pack that feeds rivers each Spring, but the groundwater that provides much of the water for irrigation of the land, specifically, the Ogallala Aquifer.  Weather.Com said in 2013, “Under the right circumstances, say the Ogallala Aquifer gets overdrawn or climate change reduces snow melt for the Platte and Arkansas rivers and farming halts in the High Plains, it could happen, says Nick Wiltgen, digital meteorologist for weather.com; however, he adds, it would be on a radically smaller scale.”  The enormous reservoir of underground water covers an area of 174,000 square miles over 8 states.  The water contained in the Ogllala Aquifer was deposited there 10 million years ago, and it is NOT subject to being replaced by annual rainfall.  The aquifer is thus a finite resource that will not last forever.  As people pump out millions of gallons of water from the aquifer, the level goes down and the water contained in the aquifer becomes increasingly salty and mineral laden, becoming less and less useful for irrigation or use by humans and animals.  (Recharge of the water level is a paltry 1 inch per year!)  The aquifer varies in depth from just below the surface to 1000 feet below the surface, and the thickness of the water belt also varies.  How important is the Ogallala Aquifer to American agriculture?  It provides water for 20% of all the corn, wheat, cotton and cattle production in the United States.  Water table levels have dropped about 100 feet in some areas of the aquifer since 1940, and continue to drop about 2.7 feet per year.  Along with salt and minerals contaminating the water, human induced chemical pollution is also creeping into the water.  Conservation of water used in irrigation has helped slow the degradation of the Ogallala Aquifer, but cannot totally stop the trend.

One partial solution to avoiding a water crisis precipitated by the lack of quality water provided by the Ogallala Aquifer is the effort to reach water reserves currently unobtainable by pumping water from the aquifer.  Much like the oil industry using “fracking” to recover previously unreachable oil reserves, methods to drive water into reachable areas underground, including through the use of compressed air being pumped into the water table, might make many times the amount of water available for human exploitation.  In fact, current pumps and technology are only able to access about 15% of the water contained in the Ogallala Aquifer.  Being able to get the other 85%, or a large part of it, might stave off a possible Dust Bowl.

Saturated thickness of the Ogallala Aquifer in 1997 after several decades of intensive withdrawals.  The breadth and depth of the aquifer generally decrease from north to south.  Map by Kbh3rd.

A subject we have brought up on several occasions is the effect that overpopulation of humans has on the environment.  More people means more agriculture, both planting and animal husbandry.  More people means more land covered by buildings, roads, parking lots and sidewalks, all of which result in increased rainwater runoff and reduced replenishment of ground water.  More people means more water being withdrawn from the Ogallala Aquifer and other sources of ground water.  More people means more pollution of surface water and ground water.  More people means increased levels of greenhouse gases being spewed into the atmosphere, aggravating global warming (climate change, if you prefer).

Are we fated to endure another disastrous Dust Bowl?  Can people stop the catastrophe from happening, or is it too late?  When would such an event take place?  How long would it last?  We do not know the answers to these questions, but we sure hope the appropriate scientists are researching the issue.

Map of states and counties affected by the Dust Bowl between 1935 and 1938 originally prepared by the Soil Conservation Service.

Questions for Students (and others):  Are we doomed to have another Dust Bowl?  Do you believe climate change caused by people is real?  Should human population growth be limited?  Let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Ashworth, William. Ogallala Blue: Water and Life on the High Plains.  W. W. Norton, 2006.

Burns, Ken and Dayton Duncan. The Dust Bowl: An Illustrated History. Chronicle Books, 2012.

Opie, John, et al. Ogallala: Water for a Dry Land (Our Sustainable Future).  University of Nebraska Press, 2018.

Kolbert, Elizabeth. The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. Picador, 2015.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by NOAA George E. Marsh Album of a dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas, is in the public domain because it contains materials that originally came from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, taken or made as part of an employee’s official duties.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.