Just before the beyond-horrific dust storms of the 1930s, the U.S. government assured citizens that soil was the one “resource that cannot be exhausted,” according to Timothy Egan author of The Worst Hard Time.
It reminded me of the La Crosse businessman who said the pine forest would never be exhausted, only to have the forests that employed a third of La Crosse workers in the late 19th century gone within a year or two.
Hugh Bennett, a former U.S. Agriculture Department worker, later said of that government comment about soil in the Great Plains, “I didn’t know so much costly misinformation could be put into a single brief sentence.”
Egan wrote Oklahoma already had lost an astounding 440 million tons of topsoil and in Texas some 16.5 million acres had been eroded to a thin veneer. Bennett, who later was known as the father of soil conservation, was appalled. He considered the way the land was being used in the Great Plains a crime against nature.
Egan quoted Bennett as saying Americans had changed the face of the earth more than “the combined activities of volcanoes, earthquakes, tidal wave, tornadoes and the excavations of mankind since the beginning of history.”
Until recently, I did not appreciate how horrific life was in the 1930s when storms brought winds so strong that they brought so much dust with them that they covered homes and sometimes schools. When a dust storm was coming, terrified children were ordered to run to their homes, but visibility sometimes was just a few feet.
Livestock suffered and died and humans experienced horrific lung conditions, coughing up dark phlegm and mud. Dust made its way into homes despite every effort to keep it out. Farmers said they didn’t go anywhere without a shovel to dig themselves out. Insects arrived in huge numbers, including species not normally found in these places. Children were frightened they would awake to find tarantulas in their beds.
What caused the dust storms? Severe and prolonged drought followed years in which the grass of the Great Plains was torn up and replanted with wheat, which for a time was incredibly profitable. But by removing the deep-rooted grass that held the soil in place, moisture was no longer trapped, leading to soil being picked up and blown with great force. Without crop rotations, land became barren and unusable. Farmers could not feed their own families, let alone grow crops for sale.
At times, the clouds were so dark that lights had to be turned on during the day. When it rained on very rare occasions, moisture combined with the dust brought down mud from the sky.
Some 2.5 million people, unable to sustain life in the Great Plains, moved out by 1940. It was the largest mass migration in such a short time in the United States.
Have we learned anything from the mistakes of the Dust Bowl? A friend, noticing the book that I was reading, said we absolutely could experience dust storms like we had in the 1930s. I was doubtful because I assumed we were more sophisticated in land practices. Her point was that those who deny climate change and refuse to accept responsibility for the environmental problems we are experiencing today may not practice soil conservation.
And then I learned of dust storms in Arizona, including a major one today. Imagine looking into the sky and finding this.
The U.S. Geological Service said after July 2012 dust storms in Phoenix that low vegetation cover and disturbance to soil surfaces are among the causes. It certainly sounds familiar.
“Future climate scenarios predict that drought conditions will worsen, and therefore more dust storms are likely,” USGS officials added.
(Read more at http://www.usgs.gov/blogs/features/usgs_top_story/dust-storms-roll-across-arizona-2/)
As George Santayana said, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”