Saturday, October 22, 2011

New Dust Bowl?

Did you read about the dust storm (hahoob) in Lubbock, Texas last Monday? As a child of the "Dust Bowl" of the 1930s I shuddered when I saw the Monday pictures and compared them to old pictures. 

I was raised near the epicenter of the Dust Bowl, a light bulb-shaped one hundred million acres on the High plains that extended from southern Nebraska eight hundred miles south to Lubbock, from southeastern Colorado five hundred miles east to central Kansas. The area included the northeastern part of New Mexico, the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles.

Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl (2005) tells how more than a quarter million people fled the area during the 30's. Surprisingly, almost two-thirds of the people living in the area in 1930 stayed. They, including my people, were the survivors, who were too hard-headed, too poor, or too crazy to leave.

I was too young to remember the Dust Bowl itself, but when it reappeared for shorter periods in the late forties and early 50s I remember. Someone would spot the large red/black clouds on the northern horizon. The principal would call us all out of class and tell us to get home in a hurry. When I got home, it would be as dark as night. My mother would be stuffing wet towels around the windows and under the doors in a fruitless attempt to keep out the dust. You even had difficulty with visibility in the house. And you had difficulty breathing.
You may understand why when I read about the dust storm in Lubbock on Monday, although two thousand miles away, I checked to make sure I could take a deep breath.

My first question was "Are we about to see another Dust Bowl?" Not likely, the experts say
Meteorologists say people living on Texas' parched plains could see more dust storms as a record drought tightens its grip across the Southwest. At least six sandstorms hit Phoenix this summer, with the most powerful striking on July 5 and measuring a mile high. But experts say another Dust Bowl is unlikely thanks to modern irrigation and farming techniques aimed at holding soil in place.
But not all agree.
Dust storms form when wind whips up loose soil. They aren't unusual in West Texas, although the size and speed of Monday's cloud was rare. Typically, the wall of dirt climbs to only about 1,000 feet in that area, not the 8,000 feet seen with the latest storm, experts said.
The wind picked up with a drop in pressure along the edge of a fast-moving cold front, a pattern that typically happens in the fall and winter, meteorologists said. When the cloud hit Lubbock, winds speeds reached 74 mph in some places and visibility was far less than a quarter of a mile...
"The thing that is scary is this exact type of dust storm is the same type of dust storm from during the 30s," said Tom Gill, a geology professor at the University of Texas-El Paso who has studied dust storms for years. 
Gill believes dust storms could become more common as Texas' drought continues. The state just finished its driest 12 months ever and was blistered by triple-digit heat until early September. This year is on track to be the driest in Texas history, with the average rainfall in the first nine months about 25 percent less than in the same period in 1956, the previous driest year, when 11.23 inches fell... 
There's also concern that other advances since the Dust Bowl could be in jeopardy. Water in the Ogallala Aquifer has been diminishing for years, causing worry in Kansas, Nebraska and other states that rely on it. And, funding for the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to keep land at high risk of erosion out of production, is in jeopardy as Congress looks to cut costs. 
Is Lubbock's storm a harbinger of things to come? I don't know, but you may understand why it not only brought my parents and grandparents to mind, but also my children and grandchildren.

- Milo Thornberry

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