August 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 5
In the 1930’s, “black blizzards” eroded a 97-million-acre section of the Great Plains, which an AP reporter casually but appropriately termed the “Dust Bowl.” The name stuck. Another Dust Bowl is not inevitable, but it is possible.
The sunlight began to dim hours before sunset and the clean, fresh air acquired a peculiar density as a giant, black dust cloud approached from the northwest. More than a thousand feet high, the cloud swept southeast and extended in a straight line as far as the eye could see, rolling and tumbling like a great wall of muddy water. Hundreds of birds flew in panic before it. People who saw the dust storm coming fled quickly to their homes to tape windows, jam rugs under doors, cover furniture, and hang wet sheets across rooms. Wet towels were held over mouths and noses as the premature but total darkness descended. Homes rattled with the force of the storm, and as the dust sifted in and piled up beneath keyholes, breathing became labored and gave way to choking. Spring, 1935, had come to the southern Great Plains.
People who saw the dust storm coming fled quickly to their homes to tape windows, jam rugs under doors, cover furniture, and hang wet sheets across rooms. Homes rattled with the force of the storm
The people of this region were entering their fourth year of dust storms, and the traditional “blow months” of February, March, and April. The wind erosion hazard was the greatest in a 97-million-acre section, which an Associated Press reporter writing for the Washington, D.C., Evening Star casually but appropriately termed the “Dust Bowl.” The Soil Conservation Service adopted the term almost immediately and used it when referring to the wind-blown, drought-stricken area encompassing eastern Colorado and New Mexico, western Kansas, and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma.
The dust storms of the thirties were not new to the southern plains, but in that decade their frequency and severity reached an all-time high largely because of the seven-year drought that began during the summer of 1931 following the great plow-up of the teens and twenties. High prices during World War I had stimulated plains farmers to break new lands, and rainfall was sufficient enough to allow, if not encourage, this expansion. When the wheat prices collapsed in the early 1920’s, plainsmen used the newly adopted one-way disc plow to break more sod and plant more wheat to offset the economic loss. Between 1909 and 1929 Great Plains farmers broke thirty-two million acres of sod. Much of the expansion occurred in the southern Great Plains, where wheat acreage increased 200 per cent between 1925 and 1931, and in many counties it ranged from 400 to 1000 per cent.
As the farmers worked this newly broken land, most gave little thought to plowing under crop residues to increase soil humus, either burning them off or leaving them to be eaten by livestock until every bit of vegetation was consumed, exposing the soil to the wind.
Ordinarily, the southern plains receives approximately eighteen inches of annual precipitation. This amount is adequate for a satisfactory crop yield only when it is carefully conserved, but farmers seldom tried to preserve moisture in the subsoil. Furthermore, snows were insufficient to protect the soil, and winter contributed to erosion by loosening the ground with alternate freezing and thawing. The drought of 1931 began a chain reaction: crop failure followed by the abandonment of lands, followed by relentless wind erosion, followed by dust storms, followed by further crop failure.
By spring, 1934, wind erosion in the Dust Bowl was so serious that most farmers and ranchers were willing to adopt the appropriate measures to bring their soil under control. The Soil Conservation Service, created in 1935, used private lands to demonstrate proper soil-conserving techniques and aided farmers in beginning a massive soil conservation program that stressed emergency tillage to trap blowing soil, contour-plowing and terracing to retain moisture, strip-cropping to provide a soil-holding root system, regrassing blowing lands, and grazing management.
In order to halt dust storms completely, grazing lands had to be restored. Although approximately sixty-five million acres in the Dust Bowl remained in grass through the 1930’s, the carrying capacity of these grasslands was far below normal. Overgrazing and drought had decreased the height and density of the grass to the extent that the soil was completely denuded in some areas. By December, 1934, for example, nearly all the native grass cover near Las Animas, Colorado, was smothered in drifting soil, and by spring, 1935, the pasture lands in western Kansas were 35 per cent below normal in growth. Similar lands were drifting badly in Texas and Oklahoma. With the guidance of the Soil Conservation Service, ranchers began to practice pasture-resting by rotating their grazing herds. They also began to contour-furrow their pastures to decrease runoff and hold as much precipitation as possible.
Despite the efforts of Dust Bowl farmers and ranchers to bring their lands under control, the dust storms increased each year from 1934 to 1938 in the southern plains. But during the summer of 1938 good rains fell over most of the area, enabling farmers to plant soil-holding crops on much of the blowing land, and by spring,1939, the Dust Bowl had shrunk to the smallest area since 1932. Ample rainfall also came in the summer and autumn of 1940, and for the remainder of the decade the plains received above-average precipitation.
During the ten-year period from 1941 through 1950 most Dust Bowl farmers and ranchers prospered. Bumper crops were the rule, and prices were high. Land that could not be sold for $3 to $4 per acre in the 1930’s now brought $40 to $60 per acre. During this time another big plow-up occurred in the southern Great Plains. Farmers broke about four million acres. High prices for meat also encouraged heavy stocking of pasture lands.
Rainfall was below normal in many sections of the southern plains during 1950. By 1952 severe drought had returned to the region, and with the drought came the dust. Blowing soil was particularly bad on the newly plowed lands, on the poorer wheat lands, and on the overgrazed pasture lands. Serious dust storms in the spring of 1954 and 1955 once again darkened the sky and sometimes reduced visibility to zero, drifted soil along fence rows, created sand dunes in some fields, and ruined crops.
Although wind erosion affected a larger area than it had twenty years earlier, the region did not revert to the severe conditions of the 1930’s—principally because of the conservation techniques practiced during the previous two decades. As a result, some of the worst blow areas of the 1930’s were not critically affected by the drought and wind of the 1950’s. Furthermore, Dust Bowl farmers were better prepared financially to handle the drought and blowing soil, and the federal government once again provided funds for emergency tillage.
Today, the southern Great Plains is experiencing another drought. The deficiency in rainfall has stunted vegetation growth, and the wind is blowing the soil. But this is not to say that the “black blizzards,” a characteristic of the 1930’s, will necessarily return. Dust Bowl farmers, as a whole, now know how to handle blowing soil and, more importantly, recognize the need to keep protective cover crops on the soil to prevent a serious wind erosion problem. But they may have to make other major adjustments in their current practices; they must realize the value of planting more drought-resistant crops and of reducing grazing on pasture lands.
Another Dust Bowl is not inevitable. But it is possible.