How the Dust Bowl Environmental Disaster Impacted the US Economy
The Scary Thing Is That It Could Happen Again
The Dust Bowl is an environmental disaster that hit the Midwest in the 1930s. A combination of a severe water shortage and harsh farming techniques created it. Some scientists believe it was the worst drought in North America in 300 years.
The lack of rain killed the crops that kept the soil in place. When winds blew, they raised enormous clouds of dust. It deposited mounds of dirt on everything, even covering houses. Dust suffocated livestock and caused pneumonia in children. At its worst, the storm blew dust to Washington, D.C.
In 1930, weather patterns shifted over the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The Pacific grew cooler than normal and the Atlantic became warmer. The combination weakened and changed the direction of the jet stream. That air current usually carries moisture from the Gulf of Mexico up toward the Great Plains. It then dumps rain when it reaches the Rockies. When the jet stream moved south, rain never reached the Great Plains.
Tall prairie grass once protected the topsoil of the Midwest. But once farmers settled the prairies, they plowed over 5.2 million acres of the deep-rooted grass. Years of over-cultivation meant the soil lost its richness. When the drought killed off the crops, high winds blew the remaining topsoil away. Parts of the Midwest still have not recovered.
As the dust storms grew, they intensified the drought. The airborne dust particles reflected some sunlight back into space before it could reach the earth. As a result, the land cooled. As temperatures dipped, so did evaporation. The clouds never got enough moisture to release rain.
There were four waves of droughts, one right after another. They occurred in 1930-31, 1934, 1936, and 1939-1940. But it felt like one long drought. That's because the affected regions could not recover before the next one hit. The last drought didn't end until 1940.
1930-1931: The first drought ravaged 23 states in the Mississippi and Ohio river valleys. It reached as far east as the mid-Atlantic region and hit eight Southern states. It was the worst drought in 20th century Arkansas. Deflation during the Depression drove cotton prices down from 16.79 cents per pound in 1929 to 5.66 cents a pound in 1931. The drought reduced cotton yields from six bales an acre to two bales an acre during the same period. It cost farmers more to plant cotton than they could get selling it.
Between 30 percent and 50 percent of Arkansas crops failed. As a result, farmers could not produce enough food to eat. President Hoover refused to help. He believed it would make people weak. The Red Cross supplied $5 million to plant seeds. The only crop that would grow was turnips. As the drought continued, Congress appropriated $45 million for seed and $20 million for food rations.
In 1932, there were 14 dust storms. In 1933, that increased to 48 storms.
1934: The third drought created the hottest year on record until 2014. There were 29 consecutive days with temperatures above 100 degrees. Almost 80 percent of the country recorded bone-dry conditions. On April 15, 1934, the worst dust storm occurred. It was later named Black Sunday. Several weeks later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Soil Conservation Act. It taught farmers how to plant in a more sustainable way.
1936: The drought returned with the hottest summer on record. In June, eight states experienced temperatures at 110 or greater. They were Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, and Tennessee. In July, the heat wave hit 12 more states. They were Iowa, Kansas (121 degrees), Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Dakota (121 degrees), Oklahoma (120 degrees), Pennsylvania, South Dakota (120 degrees), West Virginia, and Wisconsin. All these states broke or tied their record temperatures.
In August, Texas saw 120-degree record-breaking temperatures. It was also the deadliest heat wave in U.S. history, killing 1,693 people. Another 3,500 people drowned while trying to cool off.
1939 - 1040: Heat and drought returned in 1939 and 1940. Louisiana experienced 115 consecutive days of 90-degree days between June 9 and September 29, 1939. That was a record for the southeastern United States.
By 1941, rainfall levels had returned to near-normal levels. The rains helped to end the Great Depression.
The Dust Bowl affected the entire Midwest. The worst of it laid waste to the Oklahoma panhandle. It also devastated the northern two-thirds of the Texas panhandle. It reached the northeastern part of New Mexico, most of southeastern Colorado, and the western third of Kansas. It covered 100 million acres in an area that was 500 miles by 300 miles. By 1934, the drought covered 75 percent of the country, affecting 27 states.
How It Affected the Economy
The massive dust storms forced farmers out of business. They lost both their livelihoods and their homes. Deflation from the Depression aggravated the plight of Dust Bowl farmers. Prices for the crops they were able to grow fell below subsistence levels. In 1932, the federal government sent aid to the drought-affected states.
In 1933, farmers slaughtered 6 million pigs to reduce supply and boost prices. The public protested the waste of food. In response, the federal government created the Surplus Relief Corporation. That made sure excess farm output went to feed the poor. After that, Congress appropriated the first funds earmarked for drought relief.
By 1934, farmers had sold 10 percent of all their farms. Half of those sales were caused by the depression and drought. By 1937, more than one out of five farmers were on federal emergency relief. Families migrated to California or cities to find work that often didn't exist by the time they got there. Many ended up living as homeless “hobos.” Others lived in shantytowns called “Hoovervilles," named after then-President Herbert Hoover.
By 1936, 21 percent of all rural families in the Great Plains received federal emergency relief. In some counties, it was as high as 90 percent.
In 1937, the Works Progress Administration reported that drought was the main reason for relief in the Dust Bowl region. More than two-thirds were farmers. Total assistance was estimated at $1 billion in 1930s dollars. The report found that losses in the Dust Bowl affected the entire national economy. The Dust Bowl greatly worsened the effects of the Great Depression.
How It Could Happen Again
The Dust Bowl could happen again. Agribusiness is draining the groundwater from the Ogallala Aquifer eight times faster than rain is putting it back. The Aquifer stretches from South Dakota to Texas. It's home to a $20-billion-a-year industry that grows nearly one-fifth of the United States’ wheat, corn and beef cattle. It supplies about 30 percent of the nation's irrigation water. At the current rate of use, the groundwater will be gone within the century. Parts of the Texas Panhandle are already running dry.
Scientists say it would take 6,000 years for to refill the aquifer.
Ironically, federal agricultural subsidies are partly responsible for draining the Ogalla Aquifer. These subsidies began as part of the New Deal. They helped small farm families stay on the land and hang on through the Dust Bowl years. Now, the subsidies pay corporate farms to grow all types of crops. Corn for cattle feed is the biggest culprit, fattening 40 percent of the nation's grain-fed beef.
Cotton growers in Texas receive $3 billion a year in federal subsidies. They drain water from the Ogallala Aquifer to grow fiber that is no longer used in the United States. It's shipped to China, where it's made into the cheap clothing sold in American stores.
Other subsidies encourage farmers to grow corn for ethanol bio-fuel. The number of production facilities in the High Plains region is being doubled. In response, farmers are increasing corn production, draining an additional 120 billion gallons a year.
Regardless of what drains the aquifer, the result is the same. Once the water runs out, the Great Plains might become the site of yet another natural disaster. Farmers will once again leave the area in droves.
Those that remain will switch to wheat, sorghum, and other sustainable, low-water crops. Some will take advantage of the constant winds that created the Dust Bowl to drive giant wind farms. A few will allow the grasslands that once dominated to return. That will provide habitat for wildlife, making the area attractive to hunters and ecotourists alike. (Sources: "Surviving the Dust Bowl," Public Broadcasting Service. "Drought in the Dust Bowl Years," National Drought Mitigation Center. "Farming in the 1930s," Living History Farm.)