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Posted at 12:15 PM ET, 11/10/2010

Remembering the Dust Bowl of the 1930s

By Don Lipman

"Black Sunday" - what, where and when was it?

Lincoln Memorial in a dust cloud with the sun dimly shining through --from either March 6 or March 21, 1935. Taken by Science Service Photographer John Hugh O'Neill.

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.

Approaching Dust Storm in South Dakota, 1934
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." -, 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

By Don Lipman  | November 10, 2010; 12:15 PM ET
Categories:  History, Latest, Lipman, U.S. Weather  
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"not to be confused with "black Friday," the day after Thanksgiving, when merchants hope to be finally in "the black" for the year."

is a little odd!

For a bit I was expecting to read: "The "Dust Bowl," a term first coined by Robert Geiger, and not to be confused with the Ice Bowl, the 1967 NFL championship game that was the coldest NFL game on record at -13F..." It's just that there are a host of other Black Sundays to confuse this one with, why compare with Black Friday? Why not confuse it with Black Monday and Tuesday in the Crash, not to be confused with the movie that won the Oscar, not to be confused with the cichlid fish. See, odd!

Posted by: prokaryote | November 10, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

I'm too young for the Dust Bowl, but my parents and grandparents remembered it well in western Wisconsin. 1935 seems to have been a "normal" year in the North Woods, but was sandwiched in between the abnormally hot and dry years 1934 and 1936. Many of the heat records up there from May, 1934 and July, 1936 remain unbroken to this day.

It was so hot and dry that the once-abundant maidenhair fern and trailing arbutus disappeared from the forests of western Wisconsin during the Thirties. It took thirty years for the maidenhair fern to return; it was abundant when I studied botany during college in 1968 and 1969. The trailing arbutus has yet to return and is a protected species in the sheltered locations where it remains.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | November 10, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

"The Worst Hard Time" by Timothy Egan.

Posted by: ennepe68 | November 10, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

Can we have another Dust Bowl?

Yes, if climate scientists are accurate. One of the projected consequences of global warming is the emergence of generally hotter and drier conditions [e.g. Dust Bowl conditions!] over the continental U.S.

Currently the "Tea Party righties" [Ken Cuccinelli, Rand Paul et al.] wish to cut or eliminate Federal spending for all programs. If they happen to be wrong on climate change future conditions may actually dwarf those of the Dust Bowl.

Posted by: Bombo47jea | November 10, 2010 1:56 PM | Report abuse

Great article and photos; especially fun for history buffs like me. I had no idea the Dust Bowl effects were seen so far east.

Posted by: tinkerbelle | November 10, 2010 2:25 PM | Report abuse

tinkerbelle: Thx. Yes, the Dust Bowl was more far-reaching than many people thought. As John Steinbeck described in The Grapes of Wrath, it was a desperate time.

Posted by: Don-Capital Weather Gang | November 10, 2010 2:41 PM | Report abuse

Great write-up, Don. Quite stunning pictures you found, too!

Posted by: Camden-CapitalWeatherGang | November 10, 2010 3:31 PM | Report abuse

(I found the dust storm picture particularly... scary.)

Posted by: Camden-CapitalWeatherGang | November 10, 2010 3:32 PM | Report abuse

Here's a paper with some model runs but as they say in the paper, the cause is agreed to be sea surface temperatures, mainly in the Pacific, but also in the Atlantic. There was a large La Nina event during the 1930's.

As for whether more of this would occur with global warming, that seems doubtful. For one thing, continental drought coincides with adjacent cool sea surfaces. Secondly, La Nina events were not and will not be related to global warming, if anything there is speculation that there will be fewer of them. The 1930's dust bowl just is another example of weather just like the next one will be.

Posted by: eric654 | November 10, 2010 7:11 PM | Report abuse

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