The Dust Bowl

(Historic Moments: North American History)
Dust Bowl A farmer’s son sits on a sand dune near his home in Liberal, Kansas, during the 1930’s. A farmer’s son sits on a sand dune near his home in Liberal, Kansas, during the 1930’s. Published by Salem Press, Inc. (Library of Congress)

Article abstract: A massive drought exacerbates the Great Depression in the plains states and prompts migration westward.

Summary of Event

Farmers all across the Great Plains apprehensively watched the skies during the spring of 1934. Day after day, the weather offered no relief: intense sun, wind, drought, more sun, then gales. Massive clouds of dust blotted out the sun over western Kansas. At first, the wind raced along the surface, tearing at the stunted wheat and licking up the topsoil. Then the dust thickened into low, heavy, dirt-laden clouds. From a distance, the storm had the appearance of a cumulus cloud, but it was black, not white; and it seemed to eat its way along with a rolling, churning motion. As the storm swept toward Oklahoma and Texas, the black clouds engulfed the landscape. Birds and jackrabbits fled before it, and people scurried to safety. For those engulfed in the storm, there was an eerie sensation of silence and darkness. There was little or no visibility, and wind velocity hit forty to fifty miles per hour. That spring was exceedingly hot, with the temperature often above one hundred degrees. On May 10, the wind returned. Unlike the previous storm, these winds whipped up a formless, light brown fog that spread over an area nine hundred miles long. During the next day, an estimated twelve million tons of soil fell on Chicago, and dust darkened the skies over Cleveland. On May 12, dust hung like a pall over the entire Eastern seaboard. These two storms alone blew 650 million tons of topsoil off the plains.

The Dust Bowl was an elusive and constantly moving phenomenon. The entire decade of the 1930’s was unusually hot and dry. In 1930, there was a drought in the eastern half of the nation. In 1931, the drought shifted to the northern plains of Montana and the Dakotas, and local level dust storms throughout the plains became more common. The storm that first brought the Dust Bowl to national attention, however, and gave it its name, was the one in May, 1934, which originated mostly on the northern plains and drew the dust high into the atmosphere, allowing the jet stream to deposit it over much of the eastern United States and even into the Atlantic Ocean. After that, the worst storms shifted to the southern plains and were typically more localized in extent. By many statistical measures, 1937 was the peak year for dust storm occurrence and severity, but in popular memory, the worst of the Dust Bowl over the largest area was probably in the early spring of 1934, including the famous “Black Sunday” storm of April 14.

The heart of the Dust Bowl is usually considered to be an area of three hundred thousand square miles in western Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and eastern Colorado and New Mexico, although conditions in the northern plains were, at times, equally deserving of the name Dust Bowl. In the hardest-hit areas, agriculture virtually ceased. With successive storms, the wind and the flying dust cut off the wheat stalks at ground level and tore out the roots. Blowing dirt shifted from one field to another, burying crops not yet carried away from the wind. Cattle tried to eat the dust-laden grass and filled their stomachs with fatal mud balls. The dust banked against houses and farm buildings like snow, burying fences up to the post tops. Dirt penetrated into automobile engines and clogged the vital parts. Housewives fought vainly to keep it out of their homes, but it seeped in through cracks and crevices, through wet blankets hung over windows, through oiled cloth and tape, covering everything with grit. Hospitals reported hundreds of patients suffering from “dust pneumonia.” The black blizzards struck so suddenly that people became lost and...

(The entire section is 1529 words.)