Last weekend, my sister-in-law and I were walking with her young granddaughter (my great niece) along gravel road to get some exercise. One thing we talked about at length — because the topic was so inescapable — was dust, a dirty subject for anyone who lives along a country road these days. Lacking rain, those gravel roads are like fog machines, with vehicles stirring up choking clouds whenever they drive by.
We also shared anecdotes we have long heard about the miserable Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, which is an integral part of our family histories. It was an epic disaster that scarred so many lives across the plains. And it’s easy to think back on it now in the midst of a drought cycle when it sometimes seems like it will NEVER rain again.
By coincidence, I received an email this week about a study done at the University of Utah which found that atmospheric dust levels across the Great Plains are rising, sometimes as much as 5% a year. One big reason why, according to the study, is likely tied to farmers converting more land to crop use.
The consequences of this could be both dire and familiar, researchers said.
“The trend of rising dust parallels expansion of cropland and seasonal crop cycles, suggesting that farming practices are exposing more soil to wind erosion,” the press release said. “And if the Great Plains becomes drier, a possibility under climate change scenarios, then all the pieces are in place for a repeat of the Dust Bowl that devastated the Midwest in the 1930s.”
Here, I could share with you a lot of those aforementioned tales I’ve encountered through the years about the Dirty Thirties — and there are plenty of them. However, one item that has always stuck with me is actually an assessment I heard on public radio a few years ago. An author of a book on the 1930s Dust Bowl called that cataclysmic event perhaps the greatest manmade disaster in human history.
At first, this stunned me, for I had long placed the blame for the Dust Bowl solely on extraordinarily extreme weather. However, while the weather was indeed extreme (in summer AND winter) during that decade, the land-use practices employed by most farmers in those days were horrendous culprits. Farmers often planted fence line to fence line to raise more and more food, and things like wind breaks and conservation acres were unheard of. When the rains vanished and the wind howled, there was nothing to protect the soil from here to Texas. It whipped up dust storms, scoured topsoil, killed crops, spawned plagues of insects and demolished thousands of lives across a grim swath of the heartland.
Part of the blame for these aggressive practices belonged to the federal government, which had long encouraged farmers to practically consume land for production purposes. In the 19th Century, the feds told the advancing white pioneers that the “rains followed the plows,” which led them to tear up thousands of acres of land and, ultimately, leave it prone for disaster.
So, are we headed down that same disastrous dusty road?
I see a number of differences, but I also notice a lot of lessons gradually being forgotten because of modern practices like no-till farming and tiling. That is to say, when you no longer see the advantages of a shelter belt protecting your field, you tend to forget its importance. When prices were good and pasture land was lying around “unused,” the urge to put that land into production was overwhelming.
Now, perhaps, we’re reaping the whirlwind — or perhaps setting the stage for a terrible sequel.
“The future of drought in that region is, so far, uncertain, but the potential for a warmer, drier Great Plains has (study author Andy) Lambert and co-author Gannet Hallar, associate professor of atmospheric sciences, bringing up the word ‘desertification’ in relation to the potential future of the region,” the press release said.
I’ve never encountered that word before, and I’m quite sure it’s one I really hope to avoid in the future.
And the future is what this is all about. The warnings and worries that come with this study are for all of us, of course, but more so for people like my little great niece, who isn’t even 2 yet but will someday have to confront the consequences of what we do or don’t do about the climate, the land and our way of life.
The thing is, we know what to do now. On a local level, we know what our ancestors learned decades ago and how that knowledge changed these plains. We could do that again — hopefully, in a proactive scenario and not out of parched, dusty desperation after the damage is already done.
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