What Was the Dust Bowl? Causes and Effects

The Scary Thing Is That It Could Happen Again

Dust Bowl
A dust storm rolls into Elkhart, Kansas, on May 21, 1937. Photo by Library Of Congress/Getty Images

Definition: The Dust Bowl is an area in the Midwest demolished by a 1930s drought. Some scientists believe it was the worst drought in North America in 300 years. It killed 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 DC.

The drought and dust destroyed a large part of U.S. agricultural production. That worsened the Great Depression. (Source: "Cycles of Drought," Living History Farm.)

What Caused the Dust Bowl?

In 1930, weather patterns over the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans shifted. The Pacific grew cooler than normal and the Atlantic became warmer. That was enough to weaken and change 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. (Source: "NASA Explains Dust Bowl Drought," NASA, March 18, 2004.)

Tall prairie grass once protected the topsoil of the Midwest. But once farmers settled the prairies, they plowed over the prairie grass. Years of overcultivation meant there was no longer protection from the elements. When the drought killed off the crops, high winds blew the remaining topsoil away.

Parts of the Midwest still have not recovered.

When Was It?

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 late fall of 1939.

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 the 20th century in 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 that 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. 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. (Source: "Drought of 1930-1931," The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History.)

In 1932, there were 14 dust storms. In 1933 that increased to 48 storms. 

1934: The hottest year on record with 29 consecutive days with temperatures above 100°. 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. (Source: "Surviving the Dust Bowl," Public Broadcasting Service.  "Summer Scorchers," Ancestry.com.)

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°), Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, North Dakota (121°), Oklahoma (120°), Pennsylvania, South Dakota (120°), West Virginia and Wisconsin.

All these states broke or tied their record temperatures. In August, Texas saw 120° 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. (Source: "The Great Heat Wave of 1936," Wunderground. "Earth's Deadliest Heat Waves," Wunderground. "Heat Waves Throughout History," History.com)

1939 - 1940: Heat and drought returned in 1939 and 1940. Louisiana experienced 115 consecutive days of 90° days between June 9 and September 29, 1939. That was a record for the southeastern United States. (Source: "Heatwaves in the Southeastern U.S. Peaked in 1939," RealScience.)

By 1941, rainfall levels had returned to near-normal levels. The rains helped to end the Great Depression. (Source: "Drought in the Dust Bowl Years," National Drought Mitigation Center.  "Farming in the 1930s," Living History Farm.) For more, see Timeline of the Great Depression.

Where Did It Happen?

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. (Source: "The Dust Bowl," National Drought Mitigation Center. "The Drought," Public Broadcasting Service.org. )

How Did It Affect 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. (Source: "The Great Depression," The National Drought Mitigation Center.)

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. (Source: "Economics of the Dust Bowl," National Drought Mitigation Center.) For more, see Effects of the Great Depression.

Could It Happen Again?

The Dust Bowl could happen again. Agribusiness is draining the groundwater from the Midwest eight times faster than rain is putting it back. This area stretches from South Dakota to Texas. It supplies about 30 percent of the nation's irrigation water. At this rate, the groundwater will be gone within the century. Parts of the Texas Panhandle are in imminent danger of running dry already. (Source: "The Last Drop," NBC News, July 6, 2014.)

Larry West sums up the situation succinctly. He said that ironically, the Ogallala Aquifer is no longer being depleted to feed American families. The agricultural subsidies did begin as part of the New Deal. They helped small farm families stay on the land and hang on through the Dust Bowl Years. Those subsidies are now paid to corporate farms that grow crops we no longer need. 

For example, 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. Instead, it's shipped to China. There, it's made into cheap clothing that is sold in American stores. Once the water runs out, the Great Plains will be the site of yet another natural disaster.