Sunday, July 3, 2011

Return of the Dust Bowl?

Earthbound Misfit links to a Kansas report that suggests the Dust Bowl may be returning.

This summer, it doesn’t take much for the wind to kick up sand in western Kansas.

A 10 to 15 mph wind will cause the horizon to dim; at 30 to 40 mph, it darkens the sky and visibility is less than a 100 feet.

. . .

Last week, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a drought disaster declaration for 49 Kansas counties, nearly half the state.

. . .

Drought is nothing new to farmers in southwest Kansas.

During the 1920s, when rains came frequently and tractors were still relatively new, the prairie was turned into huge oceans of golden, waving wheat.

By the 1930s, when drought and wind set in, Morton County was the most devastated county of the Dust Bowl years.

Congress bought up some of the land from the county’s bankrupt farmers and, by 1960, the U.S. Forest Service was managing 108,175 acres of the Cimarron National Grasslands.

It is an area 30 miles long and 10 miles wide of shortgrass and sandsage prairie. It is dedicated to water conservation, wildlife management and cattle grazing.

. . .

The dryness has had disastrous consequences for the grasslands.

Kansas grasslands before the drought

Kansas grasslands today

Shortly after 8:30 a.m. on Mother’s Day — May 8 — a fire swept through the heart of the grasslands and neighboring land, wiping out 17,000 acres of prairie and cropland. It was fueled by 40 mph winds, gusting to 70 mph.

. . .

The fire exposed the sand and a month filled with 30 to 40 mph windy days have blown nearly 20 miles of roads shut. That has caused companies to shut down some oil and gas wells in the area because they can no longer get to the wells. Drifting dunes have spilled across fences and cattle guards.

. . .

Already, blowing sand is drifting over plants. And what plant life is visible, the roots lie exposed to the winds, the sand cutting the roots.

In some areas, the farmland has been so scoured by the wind, it is down to hard crust.

There's much more at the link. Interesting and sobering reading.

Looks like the financial system may not be the only impending disaster facing the US economy. The agricultural sector isn't all that healthy to begin with. May I suggest that those who feel so inclined should start praying for rain?



Anonymous said...

Drought and dust storms are part of life on the Great Plains and High Plains. The fires look terrible, leaving acres to thousands of acres of sooty landscape that seems closer to the moon than to the lush "amber waves of grain." But add some rain and the ground is covered in green velvet. The tall-grass prairies need fire in order to survive. The short grass steppes (western KS, OK and TX Panhandles, eastern CO and WY) are not as pyro-dependent as the tallgrass but fire is still part of the normal patterns and cycles.

I highly, highly recommend tracking down James Malin's three articles that he did for "Kansas Historical Quarterly" in 1946. He describes the dust storms that reached eastern Kansas in the days before a plow ever touched the western plains. Geoff Cunfer's book "On the Great Plains" is more technical (OK, it's a slog in places) but he shows very well why even places that were not part of the "big plow up" of the late 1920s blew in the 1930s.

The current drought and fires are miserable (I live out in the middle of them). But they are also part of the environment. I believe it was Wallace Stegner who called the High Plains "a semi desert with a desert heart."


Comrade Misfit said...

Thanks for the link!