Once again, this last summer has been sweltering hot for much of the U.S. If you can recall the continent-wide heatwave in 2012, there were large wildfires in the Rocky Mountains, massive crop failures in the Midwest, and even dozens of deaths. Multiple cities broke all-time record high temperatures or monthly records and experienced severe droughts, reminding people of the infamous Dust Bowl that they had witnessed, heard from others, or read in history books. The economic downturn that the Dust Bowl caused during the Great Depression may be the first thing that comes to mind, but from a meteorological perspective, “the 1930’s Dust Bowl is the worst drought on record by spatial area,” with about 80% of the country affected by drought.
During the 1930s, particularly in 1934 and 1936, massive dust storms formed in the Plains (southeastern Colorado, southwest Kansas, panhandle Oklahoma, and Texas), lasting for days, affecting dozens of states, and bringing major ecological and agriculture damage to the prairies.
Since a desert in defined as an area receiving less than 10 inches of precipitation a year, some cities literally underwent desertification. These areas became prone to droughts and high winds, and during “black blizzards” (massive dust storms), some of the dust even reached New York, Washington D.C., and other East Coast cities. In addition, farmers ignorantly plowed deep in the virgin topsoil under the tall grasses that covered the Great Plains and planted crops. When the crops failed during the drought, the ground was bare, and strong winds would pick up the dust, resulting in massive, blinding dust storms. Furthermore, there were record breaking heat waves as a result of the dry ground, which allows for more sunlight to be absorbed. In fact, 24 out of the 50 states had all-time highest temperature records during the Dust Bowl, with North Dakota and South Dakota both surpassing 120 degrees Fahrenheit!
You’ve probably read about the Dust Bowl (like John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath) or have at least seen pictures or documentaries of the it. An estimated 100 million acres of farmland were devastated, farms and businesses were abandoned, and Dust Bowl refugees fled west, many of whom became migrant workers. In response to the disaster, Franklin D. Roosevelt create government programs for better managing of land in 1933, the Civilian Conservation Corps planted trees, and farmers were educated with modern farming practices. With more knowledge and preparation today, there were likely never be a repeat of the disastrous Dust Bowl. Nevertheless, we can expect more droughts, heat waves, and windstorms in the future, some of which may break the records set by the abominable 1930s Dust Bowl.