Are We Headed for Another Dust Bowl?
A West Texas thunderstorm on July 24 kicked up a dust cloud as the winds passed over ground parched and barren from a drought that began back in 2010. As the dust passed over Interstate 20 just before 8 p.m., drivers lost sight of the road before them and quickly slowed down, setting off a chain of collisions as 17 cars and trucks ran into one another. Two 18-wheelers sandwiched one car, killing its driver and passenger.
Nearly 60 percent of the United States, mostly in the center and west of the country, is currently experiencing moderate to exceptional drought conditions, according to the National Drought Monitor, and the drought is expected to persist into 2013 for many of those already parched states. The effects of these dry times have come in many forms: The costs of agricultural products, including beef and corn, and the food products derived from them have risen. Barges are having difficulty traversing the Mississippi River. Dry soil is causing the foundations of some homes to crack and leak. And dust storms, like the one in Texas, are echoing the 1930s Dust Bowl, the subject of a new documentary by Ken Burns that premieres on PBS this weekend.
Drought is a natural phenomenon, especially in the semiarid Great Plains. But the way that humans interact with their environment prior to and during a drought can profoundly affect not only how well they weather such an event but also aspects of the drought itself. The Dust Bowl provides the best—or perhaps, most horrific—example of the phenomenon, but the current drought may be foreshadowing an even worse future.
The 1930s drought, though longer, was not too unlike the one now. Scientists have traced the drought of the Dust Bowl years to abnormal sea surface temperatures. and likewise have blamed La Nina for the current drought. “Those are naturally occurring events,” says Richard Seager, a climatologist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University.
Hot weather and little rain isn’t enough to create a Dust Bowl, though—humans helped. “Human-induced land degradation is likely to have not only contributed to the dust storms of the 1930s but also amplified the drought,” Seager and his colleagues wrote in a 2009 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “These together turned a modest…drought into one of the worst environmental disasters the U.S. has experienced.”