The huge Black Sunday storm strikes the Church of Good in Ulysses, Kansas, 1935. The heart of the Dust Bowl covered more than 100 million acres in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas.(Photo: Historic Adobe Museum)
As disastrous as this year's drought has been - with up to 65% of the
USA enduring drought conditions at one point in mid-September and
likely billions of dollars in crop losses - it can't really compare to
the decade-long tragedy of the Dust Bowl.
How bad was the drought
of the 1930s? "The Dust Bowl belongs on the list of the top three, four,
or five environmental catastrophes in world history," according to
historian Donald Worster of the University of Kansas.
combination of factors, including government incentives and several
unusually wet years, led farmers to plant much of the region with wheat
in the 1920s. A shortsighted and ill-advised farming practice - known as
"the Great Plow-up" - occurred when farmers essentially gouged out huge
swaths of topsoil to plant their wheat.
"People moved in and
changed the ecosystem that had been there for thousands or millions of
years," says climatologist Brian Fuchs of the National Drought
And then, when the rains stopped in the '30s,
as is common in the area, massive dust storms sucked up the newly plowed
earth, often turning day into night.
Comparing it to this year's
drought, Fuchs says that while we're approaching the intensity of what
we saw during the peak drought years of the 1930s, it's the decade-long
duration of the Dust Bowl that sets it apart.
Climate change is
also leading to speculation that drought could be the new normal - that
droughts like this year's will be common in the central and western USA
in the years and decades ahead. But how quickly we forget: Just last
year, much of the central U.S. endured flooding unlike anything in
recorded history, with both the Mississippi and Missouri River basins
swamped to near-all-time record levels.
Both the Mississippi and
Missouri River floods of 2011 were multibillion-dollar disasters, the
National Climatic Data Center reported. Crazily, just a few hundred
miles to the west, Texas last year endured one of its worst droughts on
record, which has eased somewhat this year.
So while climate
change may eventually lead to more droughts, it's these wild swings of
weather extremes that could be more common now and in the years ahead,
according to a report earlier this year from the Intergovernmental Panel
on Climate Change. The report found that drought-causing heat waves,
floods and other extreme weather are all expected to worsen with global
Some of the incredible facts about the Dust Bowl:
-- The heart of the Dust Bowl covered more than 100 million acres in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado and Kansas.
-- More than 850 million tons of topsoil blew away in a single year.
-- As many as a quarter-million Americans were driven from their homes.
-- At one point in July 1934, 80% of the USA was in a drought, the highest percentage ever recorded.