About 40 years ago I met a fellow named Brian on business in Cooperstown. He called California home, but was born in the Oklahoma Panhandle in the 1930s. He didn’t recall anything about the Sooner State, because he was only 1 when his family piled him, a few belongings and some siblings into a Model A. They – along with thousands of Okies – left their dust-ravaged home, heading west to seek better fortunes in the Golden State. The Oklahoma Panhandle and parts of four adjoining states were dubbed the “Dust Bowl.”
Some agricultural history is helpful, because, as Winston Churchill said in 1948, “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” This climate disaster wasn’t confined to the geographical area just mentioned. For example, in March 1935 a dust storm hit Washington, D.C., caused by Dust Bowl-spawned Midwest soil erosion. Washington had already experienced at least one dust storm a year earlier; this storm had special timing. It hit on the day Hugh Bennett, director of the Soil Erosion Service, testified before Congress for the need to continue funding the program, which worked to stop soil loss causing dust storms. Washingtonians saw firsthand the impact of soil erosion as dust covered the Mall and the city. Thus goaded, Congress approved far-reaching conservation programs.
Lest anyone think that the Dust Bowl calamity was confined to that geography and decade, fast forward to May 1, 2023 when a New York Times article addressed a major dust-caused traffic calamity on I-55 in Central Illinois. It detailed how 77 vehicles were involved in that accident, along with several fatalities.
On May 11, Karen P. Stillerman, writing for the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) blog, penned an article titled “Illinois Dust Storm Disaster is a Warning for Agriculture.” She wrote that on that on I-55, a freak dust storm caused a series of massive vehicle pileups that killed several people, injuring dozens more. According to Illinois State Police, the mishap was caused by “excessive winds blowing dirt from farm fields across the highway leading to zero visibility.” Stillerman wrote, “News reports noted that dust storms are rare in Illinois, but drier, hotter conditions in many farming communities could make such events more frequent and deadly. This disaster should serve as a sobering reminder that policymakers and the agriculture industry need to do more to adapt to our changing climate.”
Stillerman pointed out that a more modern Dust Bowl could develop when soil erosion and climate change collide. In the original Dust Bowl, a nearly decade-long confluence of recurring severe droughts, poor farming practices and plummeting grain prices devastated much of the Great Plains, driving the largest migration in U.S. history. Because that time feels remote, a repeat catastrophe that large seems unthinkable. But the traffic disaster on an Illinois highway on May 1 should serve as a warning.
Like the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, this tragedy stemmed from a collision of multiple systems – namely, climate change dovetailed into the excesses of industrial agriculture. Atmospheric conditions produced unusually strong winds in the area that day, but the wind alone couldn’t have caused the catastrophe without the combined effects of exceptional dryness and newly disturbed bare soil. One USDA official explained that farm fields in the area had been tilled for planting, or had just been planted, leaving soil exposed, and that topsoil “was primed to be lofted into the air by short-term dryness.” Additionally, that part of central Illinois had received roughly half the normal rainfall for April.
Stillerman noted that a devastating dust storm is just one of many bad outcomes possible when increasingly severe weather interacts with an ag system that disrespects its soil. Although few notice it, erosion and soil degradation caused by industrial agriculture already exist in farming regions across the country. In a 2020 report, UCS workers pointed out that U.S. croplands lose at least twice as much soil to erosion as the Great Plains lost annually during the peak of the Dust Bowl.
Using recent estimates from the USDA, UCS projected that croplands would lose an additional 28 billion tons of soil by 2035 and 148 billion tons by 2100 – about 300 years’ worth at the rate at which soil naturally forms. As climate change continues and farming areas get hotter and drier – as expected in the Southern Great Plains and Southwest – erosion could increasingly take the form of dust storms when bone-dry fields are plowed. In Illinois and the rest of the Corn Belt, weather patterns may ping-pong between wet and dry.
In my Jan. 9 Crop Comments, I cited facts posted on a sign at a Casey, Iowa, rest area on I-80 (about 200 miles west of the recent dust disaster). The sign addressed topsoil loss: Local average topsoil depth in 1900 was 11.5 inches; that dropped to 8.5 inches in 1950. I calculate that topsoil depth there during the Dust Bowl era was about 9.5 inches. Reduced topsoil depth increases soil’s vulnerability to water and wind erosion significantly.
The Illinois dust storm disaster received extensive media attention, which barely examined the potential for solutions. Preventing soil loss from farms and its damaging consequences is possible, starting with keeping farm soil covered all the time. Quoting Stillerman: “Farmers can adopt science-based practices such as planting cover crops in the off-season, reducing or avoiding tillage (plowing), diversifying crops to incorporate more deep-rooted perennial plants that hold soil in place and preventing livestock from overgrazing. These practices build up soil health, so less of it blows away or runs off. It’s a win-win for farmers and communities.”
Lest anyone think that the Illinois dust disaster is just an “over-there” type problem, let me point out that area is part of the overall Mississippi Basin, which also drains most of Ohio, much of Pennsylvania and part of New York.
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