The Dust Bowl, Its Causes, Impact, With a Timeline and Map
Why Another Dust Bowl Is Likely
The Dust Bowl is a natural disaster that devastated the Midwest in the 1930s. It was the worst drought in North America in 1,000 years. Unsustainable farming practices worsened the drought’s effect. It 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.
The drought and dust destroyed a large part of U.S. agricultural production. The Dust Bowl made the Great Depression even worse.
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 carries moisture from the Gulf of Mexico up toward the Great Plains. It then dumps rain when it reaches the Rockies. This combination also creates tornadoes. 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 dropped, so did the amount of evaporation. The clouds never received enough moisture to create rain.
There were four waves of droughts, one right after another. They occurred in 1930-1931, 1934, 1936, and 1939-1940. But it felt like one long drought. 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. 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% and 50% of Arkansas crops failed. Farmers could not produce enough food to eat. President Herbert 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 Fahrenheit. Almost 80% 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 F 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 with 121 degrees, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Dakota with 121 degrees, Oklahoma with 120 degrees, Pennsylvania, South Dakota with 120 degrees, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. All of these states broke or tied their record temperatures. In August, Texas saw 120 F 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 - 1940: Heat and drought returned. Louisiana experienced 115 consecutive days of 90 F days between June 9 and September 29, 1939. That was a record for the Southeast.
By 1941, rainfall levels had returned to near-normal levels. The rains helped to end the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.
The Dust Bowl affected the entire Midwest. The Oklahoma panhandle was hit the worst. 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% 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 could 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% 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 had disappeared 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% of all rural families in the Great Plains received federal emergency relief. In some counties, it was as high as 90%.
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 Dust Bowl 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 one-fifth of the United States’ wheat, corn, and beef cattle. It supplies about 30% 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 to refill the aquifer.
Ironically, federal agricultural subsidies are partly responsible for draining the Ogallala 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% of the nation's grain-fed beef.
Cotton growers in Texas receive $3 billion a year in 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 clothing exported back to America. That increases the trade deficit and costs U.S. jobs.
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 of water 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 Dust Bowl. 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 turbines, a form of renewable energy. 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.)