The modern day Dust Bowl?

Maia Welbel

You’ve probably heard of the Dust Bowl — the environmental catastrophe that wreaked havoc on the Great Plains in the mid 1930’s. During that time, the U.S. experienced its hottest summers of the twentieth century, and millions of acres of formerly productive farmland dried up, leading to massive dust storms that threatened lives and caused ecosystem damage we’re still seeing the effects of today.

What was the Dust Bowl?

Industrial farming practices in the 1930’s failed to take into account the specific vulnerabilities of the Great Plains’ open grassy ecosystem. Temperate grasslands like those of the Great Plains are sparsely populated with trees, and foster vegetation with deep root systems that reduce erosion and conserve water in the soil. Large herbivores like bison help pack down the land and maintain balanced soil biotic activity. Smaller wildlife like prairie dogs dig burrows that aerate, distribute seeds, and more. However, as large-scale, intensive crop production ramped up across the Great Plains states, these naturally occurring safeguards lost their hold.

Farmers cleared miles of grassland to make way for row crops like maize and wheat. Huge fields were seeded with a single crop species season after season, a practice known as monoculture. This depleted soil nutrients until it no longer supported growth, at which point fields were laid fallow and bare. The lack of trees or vegetation left the soil defenseless against wind erosion. Topsoil — the uppermost layer of dirt where insects, worms, fungi, and microorganisms live, and where plant roots obtain their nutrients — had dried into dust, ready and available to be whipped up by strong winds across the plains. The disturbance of wildlife habitats, introduction of chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and destruction of structural integrity afforded by native plant species, compounded to cause unprecedented devastation in the region. Eventually the agricultural heartlands from Montana to Texas fell victim to what has been called greatest ecological disaster in U.S. recorded history.

Is there a second Dust Bowl coming?

Fast forward to October 2020, a dust storm large enough to be visible from space blew across Colorado and into Nebraska and Kansas. Farming practices have changed a lot since the 1930’s, but most of those changes don’t protect grassland soils any better than they did back then. As temperatures rise due to climate change, and the western U.S. experiences the worst drought in centuries, we are currently in very real danger of encountering conditions similar to or worse than those of the 1930’s Dust Bowl.

Wind erosion damages the fields where it picks up soil, and can contaminate the area where the dust lands with any chemicals it contained. Importantly, dust storms also pose a major public health hazard. Breathing dust causes damage to lung tissue, and as dust in the air increases, hospital visits for respiratory complications and dust-borne diseases tend to rise. Additionally, dust hinders road visibility, which can lead to a spike in traffic accidents. These affects may linger for days or even months after a storm.

A recent study found that levels of wind-blown dust in the Great Plains region doubled over the past 20 years. A number of factors contributed to this:

How to improve

Land managers will need to significantly increase investment in soil conservation techniques to avoid the gravest possibilities for dust storms on the Great Plains.

Erosion control practices that help keep soil healthy and intact include:

Building soil organic matter, which helps soil absorb and hold water, and causes it to clump and maintain its structure.

Farmers can encourage this through:

Planting vegetation such as trees, shrubs, and hedgerows in and around agricultural fields to help block corrosive wind, and bind soil to roots.

Practicing no/low-till: Reducing soil disturbance by limiting how much farmers plow their fields helps reduce erosion and runoff and keeps soil nutrients contained.

Rotational and regenerative grazing: Moving livestock from one area to the next in cycles allows grass to regrow undisturbed which minimizes soil compaction and erosion. Check out our friends at Grazing Lands to learn more about how ranching can play a role in soil conservation.

No amount of greenhouse gas emissions reduction will rein in climate change quickly enough to stop the heat and wind from blustering the Great Plains into Dust Bowl-like turmoil. However, conservation land management techniques can very efficiently revitalize grassland soils and stabilize it against erosion. Farm is committed to helping proliferate these practices to keep vital soils intact and Great Plains residents safe for generations to come.