Ecology and the Environment

What caused the Dust Bowl?
Answered by Discovery Channel
  • Discovery Channel

    Discovery Channel

  1. The roots of the Dust Bowl can be traced back even earlier than the 1930s -- when two-thirds of the U.S. experienced drought, winds and clouds of dust -- to the 1920s, when post-World War I conditions led Midwestern farmers to experiment with new forms of mechanized farming. The farmers were trying to increase their profits by plowing and developing more land than ever before.

    During the five years before the Dust Bowl began, more than 5 million acres (2 million hectares) of new farmland had been plowed, although not all of it had been used [source: CSA]. Rampant overproduction of wheat crops, coupled with over plowing of the fields, led to unforeseen consequences when massive droughts began to set in during the early 1930s. As the winds began to blow against the parched landscape, uncovered patches of farmland simply blew away entirely. This was the beginning of the Dust Bowl, which actually comprised four separate drought periods that happened in quick succession [source: Univ. of Nebraska Lincoln].

    This must have just seemed like bad luck piling on an already troubled U.S. population. Not only was the country suffering under the economic weight of the Great Depression, but when the Dust Bowl effects commenced Americans also now had to deal with an environmental enemy within their borders. Between 1930 and 1939, the combination of strong winds, long droughts and high temperatures resulted in a flurry of ecological mayhem. The term "Dust Bowl" was named for the massive clouds of dust that blanketed large areas of the continental U.S. during this time period.

    The Dust Bowl also had economic effects beyond the immediate area where crops could not be grown and soil was barren. When the Earth dried up and agriculture no longer seemed like a very promising endeavor, many people left their homes in search of work elsewhere. They often went west to compete, ultimately, with established populations for already-scarce jobs. This was no great help to local economies, which had to struggle with an influx of what were in essence meteorological refugees.

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