Dust Bowl memories offer present warning

Nov 15, 2012

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s left an indelible mark on the Midwest and on history. It is the drought against which all others are measured. And it was a man-made disaster that could still offer lessons today.

The Dust Bowl was an environmental catastrophe of Biblical proportions. Swarms of grasshoppers blanketed the dry landscape. In some areas, herds of hungry jackrabbits scoured the land for any remaining vegetation. A 1936 film from the Kansas Emergency Relief Commission described efforts to organize extermination crews that resulted in over 2 million jackrabbits being killed or captured in just 13 western Kansas counties.

But the enduring memory of the Dust Bowl is captured by the epic dust storms that smothered farms and cities. Exposed wheat fields were the source of the storms. The fields were plowed up in the 1910s and 1920s in a land rush spurred by high wheat prices and government homesteading programs.  When the rain stopped in the 1930s, clouds of loose topsoil went airborne.

Arlo Hoppe recalled the storms in an interview archived by the Nebraska State Historical Society. "You know you get these terrible dust storms,” the farmer from Schuyler, Neb. said.  “You can’t even see the sun or anything. It would just blow and it would blow fence lines under just like snow drifts.”

Walter Bear lived in southeastern Colorado during the Dust Bowl and remembered “the wind would whip that dust up and you’d have to turn your lights on here in the middle of the afternoon.”

During a decade of near-constant drought, dust storms occurred throughout the Midwest and the Great Plains although the storms were most severe in the Oklahoma panhandle and surrounding portions of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas.

Dayton Duncan co-produced the new PBS film, The Dust Bowl, with Ken Burns. He said farmers were buried by the same land that was supposed to make their living.

“This is the soil that started to turn against you in ways that it killed your cattle. It ruined your crops,” Duncan said.

Nearly 75 years later, that is a point worth remembering. As a single year, 2012 has been as dry as any in the 1930s. According to Michael Hayes, director of the National Drought Mitigation Center, it is a sign the 1930s can happen again.

“We’ve known this. We’ve looked back in the paleoclimate record,” Hayes said. “But the drought in the southern Plains last year in 2011 and the same thing happening in the central Plains this year made us think the climate conditions like we had in the 1930s could actually happen again.”

Farmers are not repeating the same mistakes. Modern cultivation keeps the land intact to protect it from the wind. Government conservation programs started in the Dust Bowl still go on today.

But farmers also continue to push the land. Instead of a wheat boom, the U.S. is in a corn boom. The U.S. planted nearly 20 million more acres of corn this year than 20 years ago. With higher prices as a tailwind, Nebraska planted an average of 9.37 million acres of corn over the last five years compared to 8.47 million on average the previous five. North Dakota nearly tripled its corn acres from 2002-2012.

Farmers are able to grow more corn because of climate change. Gene Takle, who studies the effect of climate change on agriculture at Iowa State University, said the trend points to a longer growing season. Despite the current drought it also points to more rain on average.

“Farmers are planting longer season hybrids,” Takle said. “With this abundant rainfall they’re also planting higher populations. So we’re planting corn populations of 35,000 plants per acre which was unheard of even five or six years ago.”

And, Takle said, with that opportunity comes volatility.

“Average rainfall is going up but the more important and more impactful side of that is we’re getting changes in extremes, that is, the heavy rainfall events and, as we’ve seen this past year, significantly below-normal precipitation,” Takle said.

According to Takle, farmers need to prepare for more frequent droughts and floods and more unpredictable peaks and valleys in the climate. That’s why documentary producer Dayton Duncan believes the Dust Bowl still stands as a cautionary tale.

“The Dust Bowl isn’t just about mother nature. It’s about human nature,” Duncan said. “I think one of the lessons of the Dust Bowl is that anytime you forget to be humble in the face of the environment and nature, and anytime you push the land too much, you’re taking a great risk that in certain instances like the Dust Bowl can be catastrophic.”

Whether a disaster like the Dust Bowl is ever repeated may have as much to do with how we manage ourselves as it does the weather.

Editor's Note:  Watch the Ken Burns' documentary "The Dust Bowl" starting Sunday, Nov. 18 at 7:00 p.m. CT on NET1/HD.