Climate and the Dust Bowl

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Not only was the “Dust Bowl” one of the most devastating climatic events in American history, we cannot even comfortably call it a natural disaster. Rather, it was us, humanity, who played a major role in bringing this calamity upon on ourselves. Indeed, one does not need to look further than the 20th century to see that human activity may in fact have immediate consequences on climate. In particular, situations can be exacerbated when in unison with the forces of natures. What would otherwise have been a drought, the Dust of Bowl of the 1930’s intensified due to increasing human agitation. Nonetheless, it is still disputed today that the causal relationship between humans and the environment is exaggerated. Many skeptics even assert that the ability of humans to seriously affect climate is merely the imaginings of alarmists motivated by paranoia and sinister political agendas. While this paper does not attempt to discuss modern climate change, it does aim to validate the concept that humans, albeit only complex primates, have the power to wreak havoc on the planet and in turn, ourselves. Hopefully, as we see that it has happened before in recent history, we will not be so quick to sweep this notion like dust under the rug. Therefore, in order to appreciate the gravity of our own capabilities within our environmental context, this paper will explore the Dust Bowl’s manmade and natural causes, the manner in which various parts of the climate system interacted to intensify this event and the impact this catastrophe had on human life as well as the environment. The first European explorers to voyage through the Great American Plains remarked that the lack of moisture in the soil rendered this terrain less than ideal for agriculture.1 At the turn of the century, however, a period of abnormally high rain fall seemingly contradicted this time-established observation. The American federal government believed this anomaly was permanent and actively encouraged migration to the Great Plains with the Homestead Act.2 Drawn by the dream of owning their own farm, thousands took up the offer to settle the Great Plains to enjoy their own piece of the American dream. After a brief drought in 1890, however, the region experienced yet another unusually wet period. This apparently verified the view that this region was indeed arable. Increased migration coupled with industrialized technology such as the gasoline tractor and the mechanized plow greatly expanded cultivation to unforeseen levels. During this period, farms were quite profitable, particularly during World War One in which food prices increased. Economic pressure, however, only encouraged further exploitation of the land to unsustainable levels.3 In total, during the five years between 1925 and 1930, more than 5 million acres of grasslands were plowed and cultivated. 4In fact, it would seem that this rapid expansion was favorable as it culminated in record breaking harvests in 1931. 5 This success story, however, came to an abrupt halt and then spiraled out of control. When markets crashed during the Great Depression, the price for wheat plummeted and farmers were stuck with an oversupply of produce. In the state of panic, farmers only intensified expansion of their farmers in a desperate attempt to recreate past profits. What remained of the natural drought-resistant grass was uprooted, plowed and cultivated. Moreover, there was an absence of “crop rotation, fallow fields, cover crops, soil terracing and wind-breaking trees to prevent wind erosion”.6 This over exertion of virgin topsoil left the infertile fields covered with a layer of desiccated dirt which became drier and drier as it was unable to retain moisture. Then, just as the situation could not get any worse, the rain stopped and a severe draught ensued. In 1931, the eroded land was blown away in the common winds of the region and developed into the first dust storm to sweep the United States in what came to be known as...