Of course, that’s just one photograph. In the “Dirty Thirties,” there were many photos like this one, taken in the Texas Panhandle under FDR’s Farm Security Administration:
So will there be a second Dust Bowl? In this post, I’ll first look at a study that suggests there might be (although nobody says we are there yet). Then, I’ll look at the implications of a second Dust Bowl, including the prospect of desertification, and what happened the topsoil lost in the first Dust Bowl. (Previous posts on at NC are here, here, and here. I know we have soil mavens in the readership, so I hope they’ll chime in.)
Throughout the U.S. Great Plains, satellite data combined with surface networks have shown a significant increase in airborne dust over the last two decades. This airborne dust is negatively influencing human health and visibility and coincides with increases in agricultural production.
Renewed agricultural expansion is adding to the problem. Grasslands are being plowed up to plant corn near refineries that turn corn into biofuels—spurred by U.S. policies that encourage renewable fuels. Soil is left exposed at critical times of the year….Underlining the connection, [Gannet Haller, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Utah who led the GRL study] says the new study identifies a strong correlation between new croplands and the downwind areas where dust levels are growing the fastest.
The trend of rising dust parallels expansion of cropland and seasonal crop cycles, suggesting that farming practices are exposing more soil to wind erosion. And if the Great Plains becomes drier, a possibility under climate change scenarios, then all the pieces are in place for a repeat of the Dust Bowl that devastated the Midwest in the 1930s.
The focus of the study… was to quantify how much the amount of dust in the atmosphere over the Great Plains had changed in recent decades. To do that, they tapped into instrumentation that measures atmospheric haziness from the ground up and from space down. From the ground, the IMPROVE monitoring network is run by several federal agencies and measures the amount of particulate matter in the air at sites, including national parks, around the country. Another ground-based network, the NASA-run AERONET, watches for how much incoming sunlight is blocked by dust and aerosol particles in the air. From space, an instrument called MODIS does the same job, looking at how much light reflected from the surface is similarly blocked by particles.
All together, the data cover years from 1988 to 2018. Dust, they found, is increasing in the atmosphere over the whole of the Great Plains by as much as 5% per year.
“The amount of increase is really the story here,” Hallar says. “.”
In Boise City, Oklahoma, over the catfish special at the Rockin’ A Café, the old-timers in this tiny prairie town grouse about billowing dust clouds so thick they forced traffic off the highways and laid down a suffocating layer of topsoil over fields once green with young wheat.
They talk not of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, but of the duster that rolled through here on April 27, clocked at 62.3 miles per hour.
In this study, we analyze the global potential impact of a present-day event of equivalent magnitude to the US Dust Bowl, modeling the ways in which a sudden decline in US wheat production could cascade through the global network of agricultural trade. We use observations of country-level production, reserves, and trade data in a Food Shock Cascade model to explore trade adjustments and country-level inventory changes in response to a major, multiyear production decline. We find that a 4-year decline in wheat production of the same proportional magnitude as occurred during the Dust Bowl greatly reduces both wheat supply and reserves in the United States and propagates through the global trade network. By year 4 of the event, US wheat exports fall from 90.5 trillion kcal before the drought to 48 trillion to 52 trillion kcal, and the United States exhausts 94% of its reserves. As a result of reduced US exports, other countries meet their needs by leveraging their own reserves, leading to a 31% decline in wheat reserves globally. These findings demonstrate that an extreme production decline would lead to in both the United States and in other countries, where impacts outside the United States strongly depend on a country’s reserves and on its relative position in the global trade network.
Plus a lot of people would starve, and bread riots are never good for regime stability.
While land degradation has occurred throughout history, the pace has accelerated, reaching 30 to 35 times the historical rate, according to the United Nations. This degradation tends to be driven by a number of factors, including urbanization, mining, farming, and ranching. In the course of these activities, trees and other vegetation are cleared away, animal hooves pound the dirt, and crops deplete nutrients in the soil. Climate change also plays a significant role, increasing the risk of drought.
As with so many other issues having to do with soil, we have a definitional controversy. NASA’s Earth Observatory, “Temporary Drought or Permanent Desert?” adds an important element to the discussion:
The United Nations’ official definition says desertification is land degradation in typically dry areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities.
Scientists are beginning to say that . In other words, land is desertified when it can no longer support the same plant growth it had in the past, and the change is permanent on a human time scale. Many things can cause desertification. Drought, overgrazing, fire, and deforestation can thin out vegetation, leaving exposed soil. If the nutrient-rich top soil blows or washes away, plants may not be able to return. Overfarming or drought can change the soil so that rain no longer penetrates, and the plants lose the water they need to grow. If the changing force is lifted—drought ends or cattle are removed, for example—but the land cannot recover, it is desertified. The loss of productive land for a season or even a few years is one thing, but to lose it effectively for ever is clearly far more serious
Here are some figures on the topsoil — yes, I finally got round to it! — that was lost in the first Dust Bowl. From the Kinsley Library, in Kinsley, KS, “Handy Dandy Dust Bowl Facts“:
In 1933 there are 39 dust storms. It could be told where they came from by the color of the dust: black soil came from Kansas, red soil came from Oklahoma, and gray soil came from Colorado and New Mexico
On May 9 1934, one storm was 1,500 miles long, 900 miles across, and 2 miles high. Planes had to fly 15,000′ to get above it. The storm carried 3 tons of dust for every American alive. It went as far as NYC where it was 1,800 miles wide and weighed 359 million tons. It carried dust 300 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean.
More than 850 million tons of topsoil had blown off the southern plains in 1935, nearly 8 tons of dirt for every resident of the United States. In the Dust Bowl, farmers lost 480 tons per acre. 100 million acres might never be productive farmland again.
In the 1930s the government bought 11.3 million acres of dusted-over farm fields and tried to return it to grasslands. In 2000, some of it is still sterile and blowing.
So, what happened to the topsoil in the first Dust Bowl? It blew away, and most of it is gone. That’s irreversible. My concern is not so much a second Dust Bowl, but the third, the fourth, the fifth. How many Dust Bowls does it take before the Great Plains becomes another Great American Desert? As with Covid, nature may have been generous enough to give us a trial run with a relatively easy plague. But what about next time?