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Dust Bowl

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Dust Bowl

In the 1930s, climate changes and economic conditions combined to create an ecological and human disaster known as the Dust Bowl. Massive dirt storms blanked much of the country. Their cause and resolution were both the product of human beings. This overview will define the facts that led to this catastrophe and the impact that the Dust Bowl had on the economy and environment.

Dust Bowl Photograph taken inside a dust bowl StudySmarterA Dust Bowl storm. Wikimedia Commons.

Dust Bowl: The Great Plains Region

The area affected by the Dust Bowl is called the Great Plains. This large tract of land makes up the middle of the United States from north to south. The climate and the conditions of the region extend from the Mexican frontier to Southern Canada.

Great Plains States

These states make up the Great Plains:

  • Texas
  • New Mexico
  • Oklahoma
  • Kansas
  • Colorado
  • Nebraska
  • Wyoming
  • Montana
  • North Dakota
  • South Dakota

Natural Climate

The natural climate of the Great Plains tends toward hot, dry summers and cold winters. The vegetation consists mostly of grasses rather than trees. Trees can help scientists understand climate change. The lack of trees in the region makes it hard to tell exactly what happened in the past, but many scientists believe that similar 'Dust Bowl' events may have occurred in the 1300s and 1600s.

Dust Bowl, A color map of the Great Plains region of the United States, StudySmarter

The Great Plains. Wikimedia Commons.

Dust Bowl: Farming the Great Plains

Farming was the main occupation in the Great Plains region before the Dust Bowl. Although there were some urban centers, most of the land was used for farming. Government actions and economic incentives lured people to farm in the region. Once they got there, misunderstanding of the region by farmers laid the path to the Dust Bowl.

The Movement into the Great Plains

From around the time of the Civil War through the early twentieth century, the United States government did what it could to encourage westward expansion. The Homestead Act was passed in 1862, this act gave 160 acres of public land to whoever would farm it. This group was commonly called Homesteaders. The Kinkaid Act of 1904 and the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909 followed to further encourage farming. The government of Canada gave similar enticements to those willing to expand westward. In the time from the Civil War until the 1930s, 30% of the Great Plains had been used for planting crops and much of the rest for grazing cattle.

Misunderstanding of Climate and Region

There were many popular misconceptions that the new farmers had about the region. The phrase "rain follows the plow" was a popular expression stating that when land is farmed, rainfall increases. This is not true, but many believed it at the time. Also, many unusually rainy years happened to coincide with the expansion of farming in the area. This contributed to farmers' inadequate appreciation of how dry the region typically is.

Suitcase Farmers

One group that came to the Great Plains region late was called "Suitcase Farmers". These were people who bought cheap farms as a second income source. They didn't live on their farmland like other farmers in the region, they only came to plant and harvest. Many were attracted by high wheat prices during WWI.

Dust Bowl Causes

Economic collapse and poor farming practices are generally believed to be the human causes of the Dust Bowl. The Great Depression hit farming as hard as any other sector of the United States economy. It could not have come at a worse time, as the area experienced a massive drought which worsened the human-made conditions.

Dust Bowl: The Great Plow Up

Grasses had long held the topsoil of the Great Plains down. In what was called "The Great Plow Up," farmers planted wheat, corn, and other crops by plowing up the existing grasses and loosening the soil. Farmers also had the mistaken idea that fields going unused should be plowed to a very fine consistency. Mechanical farming equipment developed during the period allowed farmers to plow even more land. The result was fields of loose dirt, no longer anchored by grassroots.

Dust Bowl: The Great Depression

Crop prices were already falling after the end of WWI. Many farmers answered by planting more crops, which required plowing even more land. When the Great Depression began in 1920, many farms were no longer economically viable. Farmers either lost their farms or simply abandoned them, especially suitcase farmers. The 1930s found many patches of loose tilled dirt, now empty of anyone to tend them.

Dust Bowl: Drought

Many farmers did not appreciate how arid the region was. When drought struck at the same time as the Great Depression, the result was a disaster. The loose dirt on the empty farms dried out. This made it light and dusty, easy for the wind to pick up. The result was huge storms of black dust. The drought of 1930 created the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Dust Bowl A black and white photo of a storm during the Dust Bowl StudySmarter

A Dust Bowl storm. Flickr (CC0).

Dust Bowl Facts

The drought and storms of the Dust Bowl lasted until the end of the 1930s. Due to the impact it had, the decade became known as "The Dirty 30s." The effects on humans and the land were massive.

Dust Bowl: May 11th, 1934

May 11th, 1943, was the date when one of the most massive and nationally impactful single dust storms occurred. The dirt was transported all the way to East Coast cities such as Boston and New York. Records of the time mention New Yorkers coughing and crying as the dust blew into their mouths and eyes. Ships as far out to sea as 300 miles East of the United States coast were covered in dirt from the storm.

Dust Bowl: Black Sunday

On April 14th, 1935, one of the most notorious storms of the Dust Bowl occurred. It was known as "Black Sunday." Three million tons of dirt from Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas blew east. Dust from the event blackened the sky as far east as Washington, DC. Robert Geiger coined the term "Dust Bowl" in a newspaper article on the event.

Impacts of the Dust Bowl

The Dust Bowl rendered 35,000 acres of land useless for farming. The health impacts of humans breathing in the dust were severe. They ranged from difficulty breathing to pneumonia and caused hundreds and thousands of deaths. Houses and towns became so buried in dirt that they had to be dug out with shovels. Although the rain eventually returned by the end of the decade, it would not be until the 1950s that the population of the region significantly rebounded.

Dust Bowl: Okies

The term "Okies" was a slang term for the refugee families forced from the Great Plains by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. The word was a reference to the state of Oklahoma but applied to people from the entire Great Plains region. Many of them went to California in search of work, where they encountered discrimination and bad jobs. Hoovervilles counted many of the Okies as residents. In all, estimates are usually close to 2.5 million people left the Great Plains at the time.

Reaction to the Dust Bowl and Resolution

The Dust Bowl quickly overwhelmed the ability of local and state governments to respond. When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected in 1932, he made recovery from the Dust Bowl as part of his New Deal plan. By understanding causes and seeking solutions, progress was made. When droughts and dust storms returned in the "Filthy Fifties," they were nowhere near as severe.

Dust Bowl, A photograph of president Roosevelt and farmers, StudySmarterFarmers and President Roosevelt, in North Dakota, 1936. Library of Congress (CC0).

Dust Bowl: Great Plains Committee

The Great Plains Committee was appointed by Roosevelt to investigate the Dust Bowl and find solutions. The committee took aerial photos and studied maps. They found that the land had been overgrazed and over plowed. The size of land parcels given to farm were also determined to have been too small to be economically viable in the long term. Their Recommendations ranged from instructing local governments on better zoning to instructing farmers on how they should plow their land.

Dust Bowl: Actions Taken

One of the largest actions taken by the Federal Government was the planting of millions of trees as windbreaks. The Farm Security Administration provided loans and food to help rural farmers. Public Works projects under the New Deal provided work for the rural unemployed. By the 1940s, new farming techniques and natural processes had allowed native grasses to begin regrowing, which held the soil down. At the same time the drought also naturally ended, which combined with the trees and grasses to keep dirt from blowing away in storms. As a result of the success of these actions, there was a new emphasis on institutional research to deal with issues.

To this day, the term "dust bowl" is used to describe regions that suffer from long droughts and dust storms.

Dust Bowl - Key takeaways

  • Since the 1860s, the United States Government had been encouraging people to move to the Great Plains region by giving away free land for farming.
  • In the 1930s overplowing on later abandoned farms combined with long droughts created massive dust storms.
  • Millions were forced from the areas in search of work.
  • The Great Plains Drought Committee analyzed causes and provided solutions to the crisis.
  • By the 1940s the rains returned, farming practices improved and natives grasses regrew which all put an end to the dust storms.

Frequently Asked Questions about Dust Bowl

Drought, a poor economy, and poor farming practices caused the dust bowls.

The Dust Bowl was a period when massive dust storms covered the Great Plains region.

The Dust Bowl began in 1930 and lasted until the end of the decade.

The Dust Bowl lasted for a decade.

As the impact of dust bowls became conspicuous, many people were forced to leave the area and much farmland was useless.

Final Dust Bowl Quiz

Question

What were Suitcase Farmers?

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Answer

Farmers who did not live on their farms, only coming to plant and harvesting

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Question

Why were many farms abandoned?

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Answer

Poor economy and the lowering orice of food made the farms no longer economically viable

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Question

How far East did dust storms carry dirt?


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Answer

300 miles out to sea from the East Coast of the United States 

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Question

What region did the Dust Bowl take place in?

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Answer

The Great Plains

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Question

What gave Americans 140 acres of Farmland to move West?


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Answer

The Homestead Act

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Question

The idea "Rain follows plow", meaning that rain will automatically come if land is plowed is scientifically accurate

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Answer

False 

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Question

The climate of the Great plains is 


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Answer

 Hot, dry summers and cold winters

Show question

Question

What was Black Sunday?

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Answer

Black Sunday was one of the worst storms fo the Dust Bowl. It brough dirt all the way to Washington, DC and a newspaper article abouit it coined the term "Dust Bowl". 

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What were Okies?

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Answer

People who left the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl in search of work

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What helped end the Dust Bowl?


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Answer

Better farming practices, regrowth of local plants, planting of trees and the end of the drought 

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The success of science in ending the Dust Bowl led to what?

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Answer

A new emphasis on institutional research to deal with issues

Show question

Question

What did the Great Plains Drought Committee do?

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Answer

Analyze the causes and find solutions to the Dust Bowl

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Question

During what decade did the Dust Bowl occur?

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Answer

1930s 

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