Years of over-cultivation and poor land management in the 1920s accelerated the economic depression and created the dust bowl of the 1930s. The native grasslands were ideal for stocks, but all that changed during the 1930s. What remained were vast ‘Dust Bowls’ of land; exposed and blown across the plains to the East Coast. A repeat could happen, this time triggered by climate change around the planet.
A section of the Great Plains of the US, extending over southwestern Kansas, southeastern Colorado, the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas, and northeastern New Mexico are referred to as the ‘Dust Bowl’. This man-made condition, aggravated by a severe drought, caused mass migration during the 1930s, a period of severe economic slump referred to as the Great Depression.
The southern plains were overwhelmed by the high winds and the choking dust sweeping across from Texas to Nebraska. People and livestock were killed and crops totally failed in the entire region. The dust bowl of the 1930s intensified the crippling impact of the economic slump of that decade. It led to unprecedented mass migration.
The present drought map covering vast areas of the US indicates an expanse of exceptional drought-like conditions that covers the southwest region of the nation. And as climate change grips the planet and magnifies the normal drought cycle, this region could be in for a megadrought that would outdo the dust bowl of the 1930s.
This dry period could last decades. This hasn’t happened since the later part of the 16th century.
The drought during the Great Depression that caused the ‘Dust Bowl’ wasn’t a megadrought. Neither was climate change an issue during that period. It was a period caused by agricultural practices and fueled by free-market principles and economic motives that are uncannily similar to the present climate policies.
White settlement of the Oklahoma panhandle, the semi-arid regions to the extreme northwestern region of the state, was the final stage in the westward expansion.
The Arrival Of Industrial Agriculture In The Southern Plains
This region has always been beset by high winds, extreme heat, and blinding dust storms. Cattle grazing was the only activity that could be sustained with some success. Farming was sporadically successful and a frustrating venture.
The arrival of aggressive capitalism in agricultural practices in the early decades of the 20th century tipped the balance that culminated in the condition known as the dust bowl of the 1930s.
Despite being aware of the uncertainties associated with dryland agriculture, there was intense pressure from multiple quarters to introduce industrial-scale agricultural practices into the plains in the south.
The villain at the top was the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The Dust Bowl of the 1930s was primarily due to federal farm policies. Farmers who increased their per-acre crop yield were rewarded. The USDA aggressively promoted the use of pesticides and inorganic fertilizers and the development of rural infrastructures such as transportation and communication. This helped to support large-scale industrialized farming.
Land speculators soon followed, seeking quick returns. The railroads needed additional freight to make the operations more viable, while the cities to the east were bullish on the new markets.
The Transformation Of The Plains Leading To The Dust Bowl Of The 1930s
The federal government encouraged settlement in regions where agriculture was infeasible. WW I created a huge demand for wheat across the Atlantic in Europe, as shipments from Russia dried up.
The government aggressively promoted new technologies for the mass production of crops. In 1916, the Federal Farm Loan Act was introduced. It led to easy credit to obtain farm machinery. Gasoline-run tractors were the final push that jumpstarted the industrialization of agriculture, based primarily on wheat.
Land began to be considered as idle capital, even if it was not ideally suited for agricultural purposes. This amalgamation of multiple economic forces and sustained rainfall finally led to the stage referred to as the ‘The Great Plow-up’ in the 1920s. natural grasslands that sustained the soil were plowed up and converted to agricultural land.
But this led to overproduction. Wheat exports from Russia too resumed during this period. Farmers turned to even more production to cover up for losses.
Wheat entrepreneurs during this era were considered the social ideal. They were the harbingers of the Great American Dream, the independent lord of their destiny. They were able to successfully extract wealth from even stubborn soil.
People with no roots on the land turned to agriculture. Such people had no lasting obligation to the soil and came in for quick returns. They stayed for short periods, cashed in on their produce, and quickly exited from the scene.
The 1930s brought in the Great Depression. Farm prices hit the floor. And then came a crushing drought in 1931. The great wheat fields were abandoned and withered. The topsoil from these lands was blown by severe spring winds and led to the ‘black blizzards.’
The dust-buried farms destroyed the livestock and brought in distressing poverty that led to mass migration on a massive scale. The dust bowl of the 1930s had arrived, leading to the ‘Dirty Thirties.’
The impact of the Great Depression was experienced by the Great Plains residents even more directly in the form of a collapse in the prices of commodities. This wiped out farm incomes and created high unemployment is linked to economic sectors such as energy development and the railroads.
This led to a scarcity of non-agricultural employment opportunities. This culminated in the combination of economic and environmental crises creating widespread hardship. It bankrupted local governments and led to a massive rate of farm abandonment and migration.
The ‘Dust Bowl’s And The ‘Dirty Thirties’
The phrase, ‘‘Dust Bowl’’ originated from a newspaper account in 1935 describing a massive dust storm that drifted across Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas. It soon was adapted to describe a wider platform and included areas where soil erosion and dust storms were especially common and severe. The particles blown up by ‘Dust Bowl’ winds piled up in large drifts and destroyed all farmland in the way.
The exact boundaries of the ‘Dust Bowl’ are subjective. Identical environmental conditions were prevalent in larges parts of the Great Plains that were not directly associated with the ‘Dust Bowl’.
This included the southern portions of Saskatchewan and Alberta and the Dakotas. With time, the term ‘‘Dust Bowl’’ has come to mean areas more broadly and generically. Any drought in western North America is now associated with the term, ‘‘Dust Bowl’.’
The ‘Dirty Thirties’ was a term that was more widely used to describe the dust bowl of 1930. This was a more vernacular term used to describe the Great Plains during the Depression.
The Disaster That Led To The Dust Bowl Of The 1930s Had Its Root In Economy
It was obvious that the pressure of greater economic gains led to the ecological disaster. The environmental consequences were never a factor then. The success of the 1920s had come at a great cost. The environmental costs came with the degradation of surface water, groundwater, soil, and biological diversity in the native plants and crops.
The social costs were just as high. Industrial agricultural practices led to a growing rural-urban divide. The health of the ecosystem that supported agricultural practices was subordinated by economic priorities.
The conditions that led to the great ‘Dust Bowl of 1930 were the almost simultaneous occurrence of harsh climatic conditions covering a wide spatial area, and difficult economic conditions that persisted throughout the decade.
These conditions that affected the land were more man-made than natural. The dust bowls were exacerbated by the wrong land management practices of the day. This triggered soil erosion and dust storm activity throughout the region and led finally to the ‘Dust Bowls.
Modern Day Agricultural Practices Display An Identical Bias At The Expense Of The Environment
The same insistence on prioritizing economic sectors is hampering the efforts to tackle the climate crisis. The federal government and the polluting entities such as the petroleum industry were fully aware of the climate changes brought about by the emission of greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide since the 80s.
The whole system was driven by the hunt for profit and the need for more revenues. The government has always had the back of industries that were into increased oil and gas exploration and production.
Identical rules have been applied to agriculture, ignoring the effect it had in accelerating climate change. Agriculture is the basis of a tenth of our carbon dioxide output. While it has a substantial carbon footprint, modern industrial farming has a negative effect on nutrient pollution, biodiversity loss, and the depletion of groundwater.
While that has been some movement towards more sustainable practices, the industry has also pressurized politicians to hold back on regulations and make sure that production and profit remain the cornerstone of any economic policy. The policies are identical to those that led to the dust bowl of the 1930s.
Ecological Lessons From The Dust Bowl Of The 1930s
We are some way off from the day when climatologists, scientists, and ecologists, in particular, will be able to tell why droughts exactly happen.
Modern-day studies have concentrated on the link of the ‘Dust Bowl’ with the atmosphere. Scientists have concentrated on the causes and the atmospheric dynamics of the dust bowl of the 1930s and similar drought conditions. This includes the return interval, the intensity, and the extent of past droughts.
Droughts of severity comparable to those of the ‘Dust Bowl’ era have been witnessed in subsequent decades, including 2011-2012. But the spatial extent of the drought makes it stand out from subsequent ‘Dust Bowl’ like conditions.
But studies have found that the atmosphere had a lesser role to play than the local effect of land surface changes.
The ‘dust bowl’ like condition that triggered mass migration by the stricken farmers during the Great Depression is more likely to occur due to the influence of climate change.
The dust bowl of the 1930s was caused by a combination of drought, heatwaves, and unsustainable farming practices, that replaced the native vegetation of the prairies. Such conditions normally occur once in a century.
But the climate change triggered by the rising concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will cause frequent ‘Dust Bowls.’ There are more likely to occur, almost 2.5 times more. And the frequency of occurrence has been pared down to once every 40 years, as per reports published by a global assembly of scientists in Nature Climate Change.
A 3.6F rise in global temperatures above the pre-industrial level will lead to heatwaves of such intensity every two decades. Highly industrialized countries will also be vulnerable to such extreme drought and heat.
Dust bowl-like conditions are intensified by huge fields, that lead to increased soil erosion, monoculture agricultural practices, and lack of native vegetation.
Climate Change Leads To An Increased Likelihood Of A Repeat Of The Dust Bowl Of The 1930s
A policy usually sets a low priority for environmental costs, including the effect it has on climate change. Lobbying by vested interest hampers the implementation of firm policy measures and increases the possibility of a warmer climate that will bring back the drought-like condition that triggered the dust bowl of the 1930s.
This is exactly what the west has been experiencing for some time now; especially in the southwestern parts of the US. The droughts are soon turning into mega-drought-like conditions and bring with it the possibility of another ‘Dust Bowl’. Experts feel that the effects would be devastating.
The topsoil is again vulnerable in large parts of the drought-affected areas, making it just the perfect condition for a repeat of the ‘Dust Bowls of the 1930s.
The policies put forth by the Biden administration would if implemented, set right many of the blunders of putting ecology below economy. There needs to be a balance between the two. Only a bold action of climate change can stave off a colossal version of the ‘Dust Bowl of the 1930s.