The new Dust Bowl?

Pinyon pine forests near Los Alamos, N.M. (Photo by Craig Allen, U.S. Geological Survey).  

With ~60% of the United States still under drought conditions, it’s time to start asking what this means and what this suggests.  We know what it means agriculturally:  the corn and soybean crops have been scorched, resulting in the lowest yields in nine years.  Supply dropped below demand for the first time in 38 years and, as of mid-September, 52% of the country’s corn crop was rated poor to very poor in condition.  Food prices have spiked as a result and are expected to push even higher in 2013 once the system fully absorbs the impact (beef up 4-5%, dairy up 3.5-4.5%, bakery products and cereals up 3-4%).  Economically, we know the impact as well.  At a local level, drought drives farmers into debt, cracks the foundations of homes and businesses, and causes water lines to burst.  Nationally, the drought has put a dent in total output, reducing US GDP by ~1%.  These are all measurable impacts of the drought and it leads to asking:  what about the future?

We usually think of weather as fleeting, so when times are bad we know that good times will return eventually as long we endure.  However, this particular drought may not be a  temporary fluctuation, but indicative of a climate that has been fundamentally altered.  Essentially,  scientists are saying that this state could be the “new normal”.  From NASA climatologist James Hansen:

“Over the next several decades, the Western United States and the semi-arid region from North Dakota to Texas will develop semi-permanent drought, with rain, when it does come, occurring in extreme events with heavy flooding. Economic losses would be incalculable. More and more of the Midwest would be a dust bowl. California’s Central Valley could no longer be irrigated. Food prices would rise to unprecedented levels.”

That’s a pretty dire outlook and one that should be taken seriously by anyone responsible for planning how food gets onto Americans’ dinner plates (I’m looking at you, USDA).  America is, at present, a food-rich nation due mainly to vast tracts of farmland in the Midwest.  If we are less able to rely on this area and drought is indeed the new normal, then the era of cheap food is over and we will have to adapt.  If this region really is facing a new dust bowl, citizens will endure more hardship and the shock to our food system will be felt by every American.

A storm of topsoil, headed your way.

What is this term “dust bowl” I’ve been throwing around?   The term was coined in the 1930′s to describe a period of severe dust storms that caused massive economic and agricultural destruction on the prairies of the United States and Canada.  The storms were caused by a combination of drought and short-sighted farming techniques which loosened topsoil.  Topsoil dried to dust and was blown away by prevailing winds, creating huge dust storms that blackened the sky and often extended as far east as the Atlantic Ocean.  Prairie residents suffered terribly as all that dust made everyday life miserable and the lack of topsoil made it very difficult to farm.  Today, the Dust Bowl is viewed as a cautionary tale about what ignorance and greed can do to the land that sustains us.

Thankfully, we’ve ironed out some of our farming practices since then, which means it’s not as bad as it could be.  Deep ploughing is used much less often and beneficial practices like no-till farming have helped to stabilize topsoil.  If drought persists, however, the topsoil will continue to dry out and may lead to dust bowl conditions.  I hope the drought lifts soon and that forecasts for the regions turn out to be wrong, but whether they are or not, climate change guarantees that this scenario will occur in regions across the globe.  As temperatures rise, a hotter planet becomes a planet more hostile to life and for human interests.

(I’ve always had a mild fascination with the Dust Bowl period in American history, and, apparently, so has acclaimed filmmaker Ken Burns.  Check out this trailer for his new documentary about the Dust Bowl which airs this weekend on PBS.)

Watch The Dust Bowl Preview on PBS. See more from The Dust Bowl.

  • Sarah

    Future droughts will certainly impact US exports, too: From CNNMoney: “The United States accounts for over half the global export market for corn and nearly half of the soybean market.” Do you think that future crop shortages the US would just stop/decrease exports? Most soybean and corn exports go to feedstock; maybe climate change will make the world go veggie/poultry-tarian..

  • Jeff Davis

    Australia is currently in the middle of a 6 year drought. Their drought is greatly impacting the world’s rice consumption and already causing unrest. The below quotes are from the NY

    “But six long years of drought have taken a toll, reducing Australia’s rice crop by
    98 percent”

    “The collapse of Australia’s rice production is one of several factors
    contributing to a doubling of rice prices in the last three months — increases
    that have led the world’s largest exporters to restrict exports severely,
    spurred panicked hoarding in Hong Kong and the Philippines, and set off violent
    protests in countries including Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Haiti, Indonesia,
    Italy, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, the Philippines, Thailand, Uzbekistan and

    The full article is here:

  • EricKrasnauskas

    Look at my busy little beavers! I couldn’t be prouder.

  • Jeff Davis

    It would only be bandaid but has any one looksed at harvesting water from the ocean to aid in crop production?

    • EricKrasnauskas

      You’re talking about desalination plants, I take it? It’s possible, but last I checked it takes a lot of energy and so it’s not very green or cost effective. Plus there’s always the question of how you get the water from the coasts in to the middle of the country…

  • jon derby
  • Gareth Cox

    If America becomes drier does some place else become more wet? Will Greenland and the Yukon become the prime farmland of the future?

    The miracle of markets is that no one plans how food gets on peoples tables. It’s a collection of self interested actors that in pursuing their own self interest provide myself and society as a whole the great benefit of cheap food.