The 1930s Dust Bowl era was one of the most devastating periods in American history, as millions of people in the Great Plains region were affected by a series of dust storms triggered by a long drought. The American people were already struggling due to the stock market crash in 1929 that caused the Great Depression. Large dust storms consumed the Great Plains region and surrounding areas throughout the 1930s, causing large amounts of topsoil to be carried away by wind due to poor farming practices and other factors. Drastic temperature changes, high-speed winds, and fine dust particles in the air made life in the Great Plains miserable for millions until the drought ended and the Second World War brought the nation out of its economic downturn.
Life in the Great Plains Pre-Dust Bowl Era
Before the 1850s, much of the Great Plains region was settled by Indigenous peoples. European settlers mainly occupied the eastern half of the US until the Louisiana Territory was acquired in 1803, which added about 530 million acres to the growing nation. The Louisiana Purchase deal preceded the age of Manifest Destiny, which was the belief that the US was destined for westward expansion. In an effort to promote economic growth and development of western lands, Congress passed the Homestead Act in 1862 to encourage people to settle in the American West.
Through the Homestead Act, the federal government offered 160 acres of federal land to anyone willing to uproot and settle in the Midwest and West to cultivate the land. People were also encouraged to settle in the Great Plains by boosters, who often advertised the region as having great agricultural potential. Homesteaders in the Great Plains initially experienced great success in the region because they moved during a wet cycle. Climate conditions were favorable in the early stages of westward settlement. Most farmers who moved to the Great Plains specialized in raising grazed cattle or wheat. When the US entered World War I, farmers were encouraged to grow wheat to support the war effort. By the 1920s, farmers began to suffer economically as the demand for wheat and its price dropped significantly following the end of World War I.
Causes of the Dust Bowl
There are several factors that contributed to the Dust Bowl era, most of which were human-driven. To meet wheat production demands during World War I, farmers resorted to cultivating poorer farmlands and practicing destructive farming techniques that compromised the health of the soil. Overgrazing also took a toll on the farmlands. The native grasslands in the Great Plains region kept the soil intact. Years of poor farming techniques and overgrazing removed these native grasses, depleted soil nutrients and moisture, and made the topsoil vulnerable to wind erosion.
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Severe soil erosion left the lands bare during the drought. Due to the lack of native grasses that once protected the Great Plains, the exposed lands led to increased temperatures. A study conducted by scientists with the National Center of Atmospheric Research (NCAR) revealed that the exposed land of the Great Plains in the 1930s also caused many regions in the Northern Hemisphere to experience record-high temperatures.
Although poor farming practices over the past century greatly contributed to the Dust Bowl event, people still questioned where all the rain had gone. The Great Plains region is characterized as semiarid. Most places in the region currently receive an average of 30 inches of precipitation or less per year.
Scientists with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) conducted a study of the climate in the 20th century to understand why the 1930s drought occurred. The study revealed that abnormally cool Pacific Ocean surface temperatures mixed with warmer Atlantic Ocean temperatures, which altered the Earth’s jet stream. Instead of flowing its normal course westward and then northward, the jet stream was weakened and moved farther south. This caused the Great Plains to experience a long drought period between 1931 and 1938. The combination of the drought and poor land management caused the topsoil to be carried away in the wind, developing large dust clouds capable of traveling hundreds of miles.
Conditions & Life During the Dust Bowl Era
The Dust Bowl is often described as a single phenomenon, but it consisted of a series of dust storms that occurred throughout the 1930s due to a severe drought period. The term “Dust Bowl” was first used by Associated Press reporter Robert E. Geiger in a Lubbock Evening Journal article. The term quickly caught wind and was frequently used to describe the areas most affected by the dust storms. Some of the most intense dust storms came in the mid-1930s. Loose topsoil turned from coarse granules into very fine, powder-like dust particles. This made it easier for the dust to be carried away in the wind and make its way into homes.
During the drought, the Great Plains experienced higher-than-normal wind speeds ranging from 20-60 miles per hour. Consistently high temperatures contributed to the drying of the lands. Dust piled up on roads, farmlands, and in homes. People often resorted to placing cloth in the crevices of windows and doors and covering doors with wet sheets to prevent dust from coming into the home. Powder-like dust particles still managed to fill homes and laid a fine blanket of dust on furniture.
The 1930s drought is separated into four major drought events, beginning with the 1930-1931 drought and ending with the 1939-1940 drought. The worst of the drought period occurred in March and April of 1935. Visibility was significantly reduced at times, with the lowest levels of visibility dropping to near zero. Thick dust clouds blocked out the sun, casting a shadow over towns and turning daylight into darkness. In the most severe dust storms, people resorted to using artificial light during the day to see.
Businesses and schools closed temporarily due to dangerous conditions. The dust storms made travel extremely difficult and impossible at times. The fine dust particles filling the air created static electricity as a result of friction, causing automobile ignition systems to fail. People in the most affected areas suffered from dust pneumonia and dust suffocation. It’s estimated that up to 2.5 million people migrated out of the Great Plains region by the end of the Dust Bowl era. At least 500,000 homesteaders and farmers were left homeless as they abandoned their homes to escape the dust-ridden air and land.
One of the worst days in the Dust Bowl era is referred to as Black Sunday. A large dust cloud traveled from central Nebraska on the morning of April 14, 1935 south across the Great Plains down to the border of Mexico. As the dust storm reached towns and cities, it created zero visibility conditions and caused temperatures to drop by more than 20 degrees Fahrenheit. According to the National Weather Service, the dust cloud was estimated to be around 500-600 feet high and reached speeds up to 60 miles per hour.
The great dust storm of Black Sunday caused 20 people in Kansas to die as a result of dust pneumonia and dust suffocation. In an account given by Meade County, Kansas resident Pauline Winkler Grey, she describes that visibility on Black Sunday was reduced to zero for about 20 minutes when the dust storm struck the area. The sky was split by the approaching storm, with one half showing remnants of what was a clear blue morning and the other covered by a gloomy dust cloud. What little wheat that managed to survive previous dust storms was wiped out by the dusty blizzard on Black Sunday.
Impact of the Drought and Dust Storms
Much of the vegetation in the most affected areas of the Great Plains region withered away and was wiped out by the drought and windy dust storms. Areas that experienced the most harsh Dust Bowl conditions included the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles, eastern Colorado, western Kansas, and northeastern New Mexico. At least 27 states were affected by the drought. When the worst of the dust storms arrived in 1935, at least 850 million tons of topsoil was lifted up by high-velocity winds and carried across multiple states. It’s estimated that more than 160 million acres in the High Plains were damaged as a result of wind erosion.
The Great Depression added to the impact of the dust storms and drought. Many Americans lost their jobs and homes due to the stock market crash in 1929. The Great Depression alone left about 12.8 million people unemployed. Many farmers lost all of their crops and livestock and were forced to abandon their farmlands to become laborers in the West. Mass migrations of people from the Dust Bowl region created tensions between migrants and locals due to increased competition in securing employment.
Dust Bowl Relief Efforts
The federal government implemented several relief programs to help support residents in the Dust Bowl. Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1933 and quickly established a series of programs under the New Deal. Some of these programs included drought relief and soil conservation efforts. To protect farmlands from further wind erosion, President Roosevelt established the Shelterbelt Project in 1934. The project was initially developed under the US Forest Service. After difficulties with securing funding, the program was placed under the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in 1937 and renamed the Prairie States Forestry Project. By the end of the Dust Bowl era, approximately 217 million trees were planted around tens of thousands of farms.
The Soil Conservation Service (SCS) was established under the Soil Conservation Act in April 1935 as part of the US Department of Agriculture. Later renamed the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the SCS took proactive measures to increase soil conservation practices and improve water systems. These efforts would later prove beneficial in future droughts. President Roosevelt passed a series of laws under the Emergency Relief Appropriation (ERA) Act to secure federal funding for several New Deal programs. The EPA allocated $525 million for drought relief and led to the creation of the WPA.
The Great Plains region began receiving normal amounts of rainfall in 1941, officially ending the Dust Bowl era. The start of World War II also helped turn the nation’s economy around as production increased and more jobs opened up. Many farmers who remained in the Dust Bowl began practicing sustainable farming, such as terracing, crop rotation, and strip cropping. The proactive measures taken to promote soil conservation lessened the impact of another severe drought that struck the Great Plains in the 1950s.