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Picture Credit: NOAA George E. Marsh Album

The Dust Bowl of the 1930’s that came across the Southern Plains was a scary event that engulfed the region with black clouds of dust, causing damage to agriculture, people’s health and their income. Droughts played a significant role, causing the soil to dry out, making it more susceptible to wind erosion. Dr. Jeff Lee, Professor of Geography and Chair of the Department of Geosciences at Texas Tech University, has always been interested in learning about the history of this event and believes it is important to understand what farming techniques were used so that an event of this magnitude doesn’t happen again. His research has become increasingly important as droughts intensify due to climate change, making it a necessity to be more aware of alternative farming techniques and to know which of these techniques should be used when water sources are limited.

Dr. Lee’s most recent research involves wind erosion and sources of dust in West Texas and Eastern New Mexico. For this research, Dr. Lee and his colleagues are using satellite data from NASA’s Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS). MODIS is “viewing the entire Earth’s surface every 1 to 2 days, acquiring data in 36 spectral bands, or groups of wavelengths” (NASA). This data helps Dr. Lee and his team of researchers better understand aeolian processes (wind-related) involved when trying to find sources of blowing dust in Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, and Oklahoma. When asked what sparked his interest in researching the Dust Bowl in the 1930’s, he said, “that not many natural scientists showed interest in the Dust Bowl” and that he “wanted to interpret the history of the event in such a way to help us understand and plan for the future.”

During the 1930’s, farmers who lost their crop were struggling to survive because of food shortages and minimal profit. Farmers began the technique of making clods of soil to avoid losing the majority to wind erosion. Another resource that helped farmers get back on their feet from the dust storm was the implementation of the conservation reserve program (CRP). This program “pays a yearly rental payment in exchange for farmers removing environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and planting species that will improve environmental quality” (USDA). Today, dust storms are different than they were back in the 1930’s. They tend to be very minor because farmers now use techniques to better manage their land.

Adding in climate change to the mix only makes things worse for farmers who want to protect their soil from wind erosion. The effects of climate change will likely cause longer droughts, less precipitation, increased evaporation, and increased wind erosion. When we asked Dr. Lee if he thinks an event like the Dust Bowl would happen again, he responded with, “It depends.” He believes that we now know what to do, but it’s going to cost the people a lot of money. Basically, we have the tools and knowledge to prevent this from happening, but there are some unknown factors. As climate continues to change and water becomes more scarce, farmers will need to adapt and learn more alternative farming techniques. Even though the Dust Bowl happened in the 1930’s it is still important to understand the history and the science behind the event.

This article was produced by the TTU Climate Science Center and was written by Breanna Allen, Aaron Flores, and Jeff Lee.

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