Remembering the Dust Bowl of the 1930s
"Black Sunday" - what, where and when was it?
Our recent flirtation with drought-like conditions calls to mind the political wrangling which occurred a little over 75 years ago during the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s.
On March 21st 1935, Hugh Bennett, a Roosevelt advisor, testified in a Senate hearing that several years of "black blizzards"* and severe soil erosion revealed that the nation was in dire need of more efficient soil conservation methods. (1)
His testimony was hardly needed, however, because Bennett, aware from Washington Post stories and other sources that a Midwest dust cloud was about to overtake Washington, made sure windows were left open with water glasses nearby (as they usually were during both winter and summer in pre-air-conditioned DC).
What happened next was that a yellow dust cloud did envelop DC, then invaded the vaunted halls of Congress, and finally caked the water glasses of the previously underwhelmed and bored senators with mud. Out of all of this, the Soil Conservation Service--now known as the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)--was born. (1)
Less than a month after Bennett's testimony, however, if Congress needed more evidence that a soil conservation bill was needed, they got it--in the form of "Black Sunday," not to be confused with "black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving, when merchants hope to be finally in "the black" for the year.
Black Sunday, April 14th, 1935, by some accounts was the "worst of the worst" during the Dust Bowl era. Although large precipitation shortfalls in parts of Texas, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma started in 1931 and Plains dust storms had been raging, off and on, since 1932 (some of which caused red snow in New England), nothing like Black Sunday had occurred before or has since.
A mountain of blackness swept across the High Plains and instantly turned a warm, sunny afternoon into a horrible blackness that was darker than the darkest night.....The wall of blowing sand and dust first blasted into the eastern Oklahoma panhandle and far northwestern Oklahoma around 4 p.m. It raced to the south and southeast across the main body of Oklahoma that evening, accompanied by heavy blowing dust, winds of 40 MPH or more, and rapidly falling temperatures. But the worst conditions were in the Oklahoma and Texas panhandles, where the rolling mass raced more toward the south-southwest - accompanied by a massive wall of blowing dust that resembled a land-based tsunami. Winds in the panhandle reached upwards of 60 MPH, and for at least a brief time, the blackness was so complete that one could not see their own hand in front of their face. It struck Beaver around 4 p.m., Boise City around 5:15 p.m., and Amarillo at 7:20 p.m. (3)
Eventually, as with earlier storms, some of the dust from this onslaught (although not nearly so dense) reached East Coast cities before dissipating over the ocean.
So what caused Black Sunday and, for that matter, the Dust Bowl itself?
It's thought that Black Sunday was merely an extreme manifestation of all of the previous and subsequent dust storms. The "Dust Bowl," a term first coined by Robert Geiger, an Associated Press correspondent temporarily marooned in Oklahoma on "Black Sunday," resulted from a) four years (at that point) of extreme dryness during which precipitation was consistently 15-25%--and occasionally 50%--below normal (4) and b) many years of agricultural complacency and mismanagement when it was thought that farmers could do no wrong, rainfall was more plentiful, and the Plains seemed forever blessed as the "the land of milk and honey."
Examples of this mismanagement include the failure to rotate crops or plant cover crops in between plantings (to hold down the soil) and the practice of deep plowing, which wiped out many of the high natural erosion- inhibiting grasses.
By the way, an approaching dust storm (though I wouldn't want to experience it) provides a good example of what a cold front, or gust front ahead of a cold front, actually looks like if it were visible--sort of like looking at a magnet's magnetic field by sprinkling iron filings on a piece of paper over the magnet.
Could a Black Sunday or a Dust Bowl occur again in America? Under a worst case scenario, some believe it could; others believe it unlikely with today's modern farming practices and our advanced understanding of ways to prevent soil erosion.
Time will tell.
(1) In 1932, for example, "The national weather bureau [sic] reported 14 dust storms. The next year....38. The dust was so thick that people scooped up bucketfuls while cleaning house. Dust blocked exterior doors; to get outside, people had to climb out their windows and shovel the dust away. Dust coated everything." - U-S-History.com, The Dust Bowl
(2) Hugh Hammond Bennett and the Creation of the Soil Conservation Service, NRCS, and others.
(3) National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office, Norman, Oklahoma
(4) National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office, Amarillo, Texas
| November 10, 2010; 12:15 PM ET
Categories: History, Latest, Lipman, U.S. Weather
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