Monday, June 23, 2008

Lessons from the Dust Bowl

“Dirty Thirties” Offer Valuable Lessons in Conservation, Stewardship

by Jennifer Wemhoff, The Groundwater Foundation

When you hear the term “Dust Bowl,” what comes to mind? Dust storms? The Great Depression? Struggle? Poverty? Drought? Pioneers? I would be willing to bet “conservation” or “stewardship” don’t come to mind; however, these concepts may be the biggest lessons learned from this dusty period in U.S. history.

I recently read “The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan, which tells the “untold story of those who survived the Great American Dust Bowl.” Reading this book made me think about where we are as a country, and what we can learn from the Dirty Thirties.

“Riches in the soil, prosperity in the air”

The country was still expanding in the 1910s and 1920s. Settlers were pouring into the High Plains, lured by aggressive investors, cheap land, a pure and “inexhaustible” groundwater supply, favorable crop prices, and ironically, steady rain and clean air.

And so they came, plowing up millions of acres of grass and planting wheat. No one knew this was the beginning of a massive environmental and economic disaster. When the rains stopped and the plants shriveled, the earth took flight.

Egan writes about Bam White, the cowboy who became the face of the Dust Bowl in Pare Lorentz’s iconic 1936 film “The Plow That Broke the Plains.” After one of the first dusters in 1932, Bam’s son Melt recalls his father telling him, “The earth is on the move.” When Melt asked why, his father replied, “Look what they’ve done to the grass. Look at the land: wrong side up.”

Black Blizzards

I try to imagine what it must have been like to see a dust storm, or “duster,” approaching. Settlers called them “black blizzards” and said they looked like they were alive as they rolled and tumbled across the naked land, stripped of the grass that held the soil in place for centuries. I imagine it would have been terrifying.

The worst duster of the decade came on April 14, 1935. Egan writes that the dust storm of “Black Sunday” carried twice as much dirt as was removed to construct the Panama Canal; more than 300,000 tons of topsoil took to the air that day. The storm produced enough static electricity to power New York City.

In 1935 alone, Egan reports that more than 850 million tons of topsoil had blown off the plains, which equated to roughly eight tons of dirt for “every resident of the United States.”

Dealing with Dust

Drought compounded problems. Egan notes that in all of 1932, only 12 inches of rain fell in the region of Oklahoma’s panhandle called No Man’s Land, which is half of the necessary minimum to produce a crop.

As the drought and wind continued, officials began to grasp the immensity of the Ogallala Aquifer sitting right beneath their feet. Since the rain wouldn’t come from the sky, local officials wanted it to come from the ground since the water was just “there for the taking.”

Change Behavior, Not the Weather

Rather than blame the drought, Hugh Bennett, who Egan calls a “well-spoken doctor of dirt,” placed the blame directly on man for the blowing soil. A former employee of the Department of Agriculture, Bennett saw the signs of a disaster in the making. While the Federal Bureau of Soils continued to proclaim that “the soil is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation possesses. It is the one resource that cannot be exhausted, that cannot be used up,” Bennett cited reports that showed Oklahoma had lost 440 million tons of topsoil and that over 16 million acres of Texas were severely eroded. Bennett called the dust storms a result of “our stupendous ignorance.”

Bennett was also the champion of a new concept of the time – conservation. He knew he couldn’t change the weather, so instead set about trying to change human behavior. A new organization led by Bennett, the Soil Conservation Service, was created to help change the practices of the farmers on the High Plains.

Learning from the Past

A recent study from the Earth Institute at Columbia University reports that the dust that flew in the 1930s likely amplified the natural drop in rainfall and turned an ordinary dry cycle into a natural and agricultural disaster. The study finds that the dust may have doubled the drop in rainfall, and even moved the drought farther north into other farming regions.

“It was a process that fed itself,” said lead study author Benjamin Cook. Co-author Richard Seager says that studies predict many subtropical regions may be dry in coming years. “That, in combination with the pressure from rising populations and demand for food, could lead to a similar cycle of drought, dust storms, and more drought,” Seager said. “The lesson of the Dust Bowl is there to be learned.”

The Dust Bowl was the result of a variety of factors all innocuously converging – World War I, a European wheat shortage, a government-guaranteed wheat price of $2 a bushel, new farming machinery, the plowing up of millions of acres of drought-resistant grasslands, and a natural decline in precipitation.

Is there a similar situation brewing? The U.S. is currently involved in conflict overseas, there is talk of global food scarcity, corn prices are at record highs, continued advancement in technology allows producers to plant more acres, and parts of the country are still facing drought.

We can’t chose when drought comes and goes. We can’t chose when Mother Nature decides to make it rain. But we can make choices in how we care for the earth’s natural resources, and learn the valuable lessons from past experiences. Learning from the past will help us all make the future one of conservation and stewardship.


  • Egan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time. New York: Mariner Books, 2006.
  • Columbia University. May 1, 2008. “Columbia Scientists Warn of Modern-Day Dust Bowls in Vulnerable Regions.” Retrieved May 28, 2008 from