Dust Bowl Conditions Likely To Return To Great Plains Within Next 40 Years Due To Climate Change

Aaron Homer

The Dust Bowl, a compounding series of weather-related disasters that bedeviled the Great Plains for a few years during the 1930s, is likely to come back within the next 40 years if climate change isn't addressed, according to a new study published by a group of climate researchers.

As The Guardian reported, a group of 40 researchers published their findings on Monday in the academic journal Nature Climate Change. The team, co-led by Friederike Otto, acting director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford, posited that at the time of the original Dust Bowl, the conditions that caused it occurred about once every hundred years. Based on current levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, those conditions are now likely to repeat every 40 years — and if the worldwide average temperature continues to rise, the conditions may repeat every 20 years.

"This is an important reminder that if we do not want events like the dust bowl, we need to get to net zero [greenhouse gas emissions] very soon," Otto wrote.

The original Dust Bowl occurred in the 1930s and was the result of compounding weather issues made worse by farming practices of the time and the wider economic impact of the Great Depression.

For example, extreme drought, plus two record-breaking heatwaves in 1934 and 1936 — the two hottest summers on record in the United States— reduced much of the farmland of the Great Plains to desert. What's more, the agricultural practices of the time meant that there was little natural vegetation to hold down the soil, and when the winds kicked up, black clouds of choking dust could descend on settlements within seconds.

These days, farmers rely on irrigation rather than hoping for rain. However, much of the agriculture in the region relies on pumping water from an underground reservoir, and that reservoir is at risk of being depleted.

Otto's team, in addition to advocating for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, also suggested that some changes in farming practices could help mitigate the effects of the next drought in the region.

For example, the paper suggested planting trees and avoiding "monocultures" — that is, wide fields given over to a single crop, such as corn or wheat — in order to preserve groundwater.

Indeed, some farmers in the region have changed their practices following a 2017 drought. However, researcher Tim Cowan noted that changing agricultural practices can only go so far, particularly when the real enemy is rising global temperatures.

"Even though you have better practices in cropping now, the rises in temperature reduce those benefits, so there would still be a negative impact," he said.