The Dust Bowl

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The Dust Bowl of the 1930s

The decade that became known as the "Dirty Thirties" was literally quite what its name implied-dirty! During the period of 1930-1940, located in the heart of the Great Plains of the United States, was a series of massive dust storms and long-term drought. Another well-earned nickname this region was known for was the Dust Bowl. The Great Depression occurred at this time as well and added to the suffering placed upon the many poor farmers of the Southwest region. What could have caused one of the worst and longest droughts in recent U.S. history? Unfortunately, decades of human influence from bad farming practices, loss of soil moisture, and depletion of vegetation helped create wind-blown erosion that shaped the massive dust storms and severe droughts. Other natural causes were unusual weather patterns: warmer Atlantic and colder Pacific sea-surface temperatures, feedback mechanisms from dry air, and a strong jet stream confined to the north of a continental high pressure system that left little chance for rainfall. Many of the residents of the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl were poor farmers reliant on agriculture to sustain their income and family’s well being. An usually wet season before the 1930s brought many farmers to the central U.S. to cultivate and settle the area. Unfortunately, the climate and soil conditions changed drastically after the start of the 1930s. Once it began, the severe drought, dry soil, and dust storms made planting crops almost impossible. Farmers with livelihood’s lost and future looking bleak packed up their families to look for better prospects elsewhere. Hundreds of thousands of these individuals started a great migration to places farther west like California. They became known as “Oakies” because many traveled from Oklahoma in their familiar dust-covered trucks. The novel, “The Grapes of Wrath”, describes the story of a Dust Bowl sharecropping family traveling to California after experiencing hardship from drought coupled with the effects of the Great Depression. Furthermore, its fictional account was in fact very similar to how the real-life farmers and their families were affected. The migration routes and the region at the heart of the Dust Bowl can be seen in Figure 1. However, one positive outcome was that Great Plains farmers, government officials, and scientists learned to develop better farming techniques and practice soil conservation for a sustainable future.

Undoubtedly, the decade of the 1930s was one of the greatest disasters in American history attributable to meteorological causes. It became the standard for describing drought. Four specific drought events took place during 1930–1931, 1934, 1936, and 1939–1940. The drought periods that helped produce the creation of the widespread dust storms were characterized by several factors. A mild, moist winter with a shift to dry conditions in mid-April around the central U.S. preceded the start to the beginning of the Dust Bowl. In addition, another preceding event was rain deficiency in the fall of 1929 on the California coast. Severe dust storms and drought was felt in Oregon, California, Washington even before the Great Plains did. Winds carried the dry air from the interior to the Southwest (Tannehill 1947).

Heavy rains that fell in the Great Plains before the 1930s was a short-lived, deceptive event while a national decade long rain deficit occurred in surrounding regions. During 1934, over 80% of the U.S. experienced moderate drought. (Rosenberg, 1978). For example, in Goodwell Oklahoma, they had a nine inch rainfall deficit in 1932 and 1933. Over the 11 year span from 1930-1940, a large part of the region saw 15% to 25% less precipitation than normal (Hurt 1981, 29). Referring to Figure 2, we can see that specifically the Missouri basin region experienced drought at close to 95% around the time of 1935 to 1940. Figure 2: Percentage of Area in Missouri Basin that experienced severe...
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