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Comparing the 2012 drought to the Dust Bowl droughts of the 1930s

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 4:52 PM GMT on August 16, 2012

The great U.S. drought of 2012 remained about the same size and intensity over the past week, said NOAA in their weekly U.S. Drought Monitor report issued Thursday, August 16. The area of the contiguous U.S. covered by drought remained constant at 62%, and the area covered by severe or greater drought also remained constant at 46%. However, the area covered by the highest level of drought--exceptional--increased by 50%, from 4% to 6%. Large expansions of exceptional drought occurred over the heart of America's grain producing areas, in Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Missouri. The new NOAA State of the Climate Drought report for July 2012 shows that the 2012 drought is 5th greatest in U.S. history, and the worst in 56 years. The top five years for area of the contiguous U.S. covered by moderate or greater drought:

1) Jul 1934, 80%
2) Dec 1939, 60%
3) Jul 1954, 60%
4) Dec 1956, 58%
5) Jul 2012, 57%

The top five years for the area of the contiguous U.S. covered by severe or greater drought:

1) Jul 1934, 63%
2) Sep 1954, 50%
3) Dec 1956, 46%
4) Aug 1936, 43%
5) Jul 2012, 38%


Figure 1. August 14, 2012 drought conditions showed historic levels of drought across the U.S., with 62% of the contiguous U.S. experiencing moderate or greater drought, and 46% of the county experiencing severe or greater drought. Image credit: U.S. Drought Monitor.

Comparison with the great Dust Bowl droughts of the 1930s
An important fact to remember is that the 2012 drought is--so far--only a one-year drought. Recall that 2011 saw record rains that led to unprecedented flooding on the Mississippi, Ohio, and Missouri Rivers. In contrast, the great droughts of the 1950s and 1930s were multi-year droughts. The Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s lasted up to eight years in some places, with the peak years being 1934, 1936, and 1939 - 1940. Once the deep soil dries out, it maintains a memory of past drought years. This makes is easier to have a string of severe drought years. Since the deep soil this summer still maintains the memory of the very wet year of 2011, the 2012 drought will be easier to break than the Dust Bowl droughts of the 1930s were.

In addition, a repeat of the dust storms of the 1930s Dust Bowl is much less likely now, due to improved farming practices. In a 2009 paper titled, Amplification of the North American "Dust Bowl" drought through human-induced land degradation, a team of scientists led by Benjamin Cook of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory explained the situation:

During the 1920s, agriculture in the United States expanded into the central Great Plains. Much of the original, drought-resistant prairie grass was replaced with drought-sensitive wheat. With no drought plan and few erosion-control measures in place, this led to large-scale crop failures at the initiation of the drought, leaving fields devegetated and barren, exposing easily eroded soil to the winds. This was the source of the major dust storms and atmospheric dust loading of the period on a level unprecedented in the historical record.


Figure 2. Black Sunday: On April 14, 1935 a "Black Blizzard" hit Oklahoma and Texas with 60 mph winds, sweeping up topsoil loosened by the great Dust Bowl drought that began in 1934.


The Dust Bowl drought and heat of the 1930s: partially human-caused
Using computer models of the climate, the scientists found that the Dust Bowl drought was primarily caused by below-average ocean temperatures in the tropical Pacific and warmer than average ocean temperatures in the Atlantic, which acted together to alter the path of the jet stream and bring fewer precipitation-bearing storms to the Central U.S. However, the full intensity of the drought and its spatial extent could not be explained by ocean temperature patterns alone. Only when their model included the impact of losing huge amounts of vegetation in the Plains due to poor farming practices could the full warmth of the 1930s be simulated. In addition, only by including the impact of the dust kicked up by the great dust storms of the Dust Bowl, which blocked sunlight and created high pressure zones of sinking air that discouraged precipitation, could the very low levels of precipitation be explained. The Dust Bowl drought had natural roots, but human-caused effects made the drought worse and longer-lasting. The fact that we are experiencing a drought in 2012 comparable to the great Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s--without poor farming practices being partially to blame--bodes ill for the future of drought in the U.S. With human-caused global warming expected to greatly increase the intensity and frequency of great droughts like the 2012 drought in coming decades, we can expect drought to cause an increasing amount of damage and economic hardship for the U.S. Since the U.S. is the world's largest food exporter, this will also create an increasing amount of hardship and unrest in developing countries that rely on food imports.

Jeff Masters


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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People try to put us down,
Just because we get around
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Quoting CybrTeddy:
Developing CV hurricane on the 12z ECMWF. Path is identical to the 12z GFS.


If you can tozz that link up CT, Id like to see it, as my Prompt wont go in today for some reason.
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Training cells may pose some street flooding issues this afternoon.

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Developing CV hurricane on the 12z ECMWF. Path is identical to the 12z GFS.
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987 mb and yes that low is still there!


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Quoting LargoFl:
wow looks like spain or france right now..do they get..tropical systems there???........


You can count on one hand how many tropical systems have made landfall on the European continent, specifically the Iberian Peninsula.

One in 2005, Vince, and another in 1842.
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Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
Quoting LargoFl:
..well what I do is click on the pic..and it will say copy URL..I click that then post it here, thats easy..sometimes all the way at the bottom it will say properties..go to that and press cltl button..and scroll your cursor over the html, it will turn blue.. then press the C button..then post it here..takes a few times but you will get the hang of it..hope i said this right lol...good luck


thanks Largo...I'm takin' notes :)
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
New moon, broke, and heat the cause of discourse huh, lol. Think we Americans are a cantankerous, opinionated, and fiercely protective of our beliefs bunch. Kwgirl that was very funny, hope your self debate was not out loud though. :) Know you were being funny but you really nailed it. The heat and finances are known big stress triggers. This blog has been as free of negative discourse as I've ever seen it in the last few weeks. Those who used to come and argue man driven GW isn't happening and then post bogus debunked science or nothing to back their statements at all; have gone the way of the dinosaur. Was not a winnable debate for them, and I think many of them finally realized it.
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Quoting PalmBeachWeather:
Spelling is bad......But I got it


I call that a bargain....
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Quoting hydrus:
Miles and miles.
I can see for miles and miles and miles
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Quoting LargoFl:
..if you notice what doc puts up in the front page, its anything but tropical things, drought issues, bad storms, the ice melting..its all about the weather, not JUST tropical, but then some dont understand, and thats ok too, not trying to fight you on this, but as one poster here, i post what I think is important as you do with your postings, there isnt a problem there at all, what IS the problem and i think some would agree is when posters start telling other posters, what to post and what NOT to post..this happens quite often in other blogs and its killing them, I hope it does not happen here as well..post what you want to, others will post the weather things that They want to, and we all get along...but hopefully most of the posts WILL be about the weather..gee i hope so..take care and no problem between us ok
Interesting u said this... just read a blog by the Houston Chronicle science writer from a couple weeks back [before Ernesto / Florence] where some blogger was lambasting the science writer for hyping hurricanes by pointing to the two waves from which those storms formed and stating "this is the time of year when the season begins to ramp up". He also said something to the effect of "pple in the Galveston Bay area should pay attention to the tropics in Aug and Sep because those are the two months when TCs are most likely to impact the area". Basically the bogger accused the journalist of being a scaremonger trying to build up ratings. So the rest of the discussion focussed not on what might happen with the two waves, or even with the rest of the season, but on whether the writer had "hyped" the wx in his post or not. It was a pretty good blog post, too.
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Quoting ArkWeather:
I just LOVE how in all the freaking drought discussions, Arkansas gets left out. There has been two years of drought at my location, and but for a VERY wet period spring 2011, it would be three. Texas was worse last year, but plenty of full grown trees died locally last year, and more are dying this year. Take a look at how much rain is currently needed to end our drought.



It has been 15"+ since May. YTD, the nearest reporting station is about 12.5" BELOW NORMAL FOR THE YEAR! Over half the state is in the exceptional category.

..there are warnings out for your state right now, should be raining there
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196. TXCWC
Quoting ncstorm:
192 hard right-must have left something in Africa



And TX/MEX low STILL STALLED OUT...wow
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Well maybe some home grown mischief that can give Louisiana a slight chance of getting something....although very slight at least its something...the Cape Verde wave train looks to be choo-chooing right out to sea
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Quoting Dragod66:


right click on the image you want to post, click "view image info". than copy the blue highlighted URL address. In the comment section click the image button and paste the URL in the box, click "ok" and post comment... kinda hard to explain but i hope this helps!


sorry that was for mozilla...
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Hold me closer Tiny Dancer
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Quoting hurricanehanna:
so after several years of posting, I still can't seem to post an image. I gave up some time back. Tried recently, didn't work. Using Chromes. Anyone wanna give me easy instructions? TIA
..well what I do is click on the pic..and it will say copy URL..I click that then post it here, thats easy..sometimes all the way at the bottom it will say properties..go to that and press cltl button..and scroll your cursor over the html, it will turn blue.. then press the C button..then post it here..takes a few times but you will get the hang of it..hope i said this right lol...good luck
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Quoting Dragod66:


right click on the image you want to post, click "view image info". than copy the blue highlighted URL address. In the comment section click the image button and paste the URL in the box, click "ok" and post comment... kinda hard to explain but i hope this helps!

Thanks Drago..I'll give her a shot
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Good post Doc, the Humidity is jus August Awful here today.

May cancel the walk as Nola Roux is er, Doggy pregnant.
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Quoting hurricanehanna:
so after several years of posting, I still can't seem to post an image. I gave up some time back. Tried recently, didn't work. Using Chromes. Anyone wanna give me easy instructions? TIA


right click on the image you want to post, click "view image info". than copy the blue highlighted URL address. In the comment section click the image button and paste the URL in the box, click "ok" and post comment... kinda hard to explain but i hope this helps!
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Quoting hydrus:
There all waisted.
Spelling is bad......But I got it
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192 hard right-must have left something in Africa

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The Lunatic is in My head.....(Last Sunday Revisited,

thanks , Pat)
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185. TXCWC
Quoting ncstorm:
192 hours


That particular one is from the 0Z run...never mind- just saw your follow up quote :)
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
I just LOVE how in all the freaking drought discussions, Arkansas gets left out. There has been two years of drought at my location, and but for a VERY wet period spring 2011, it would be three. Texas was worse last year, but plenty of full grown trees died locally last year, and more are dying this year. Take a look at how much rain is currently needed to end our drought.



It has been 15"+ since May. YTD, the nearest reporting station is about 12.5" BELOW NORMAL FOR THE YEAR! Over half the state is in the exceptional category.

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12Z MODELS ARE OVERDOING THE TROUGH!!! EURO is crazy with that HARD NW TURN! AND BY THE WAY WERE IS THE PATTERN THAT STEERED ERNESTO AND TD7 WEST?
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Quoting hurricanehanna:
I know you've deceived me, now here's a surprise
I know that you have 'cause there's magic in my eyes
Miles and miles.
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re: post # 20 PlazaRed
re: post # 52 ScottLincoln


Backtracking a little...
For reference sake, Historical Crests for Mississippi River at New Orleans... and also Low Water Records for Mississippi River at New Orleans.


Red, if you saw his response, Scott makes valid points, as changes to the river levee system, etc make historical comparisons difficult... And year to year swings are frequently enormous, plus the seasonal / monthly fluctuations within the same year vary considerably, such as one example on the list 1937 - 11th highest reading at 19.29 ft on 02/28/1937, but also fell dramatically as year progressed to 23rd lowest reading of 0.00 ft on 12/20/1937. I also recall the Atchafalaya River at Morgan City reached it's historical lowest level in 1926, then the famous floods of '27 followed.

From a SE LA perspective, consider the irony - last year we were deep into extreme drought with little rain in sight by May-June while watched record level floodwaters course thru the MS tributaries, the first time I recall being under a potentially devastating flood watch / warning while at same time deep in drought, the local soil begging for freshwater!... While just the opposite this year, extremely abundant rainfall locally while the Mississippi is barely a trickle... and allowing the infamous saltwater wedge issue to rear it's ugly head... LOL, folks should have kept their old cisterns - I've already recorded 59.22" YTD amount, not counting today's rainfall... Within a few days, I'll surpass the normal yearly total!
;)

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Quoting PalmBeachWeather:
It's only teenage wasteland
There all waisted.
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I know you've deceived me, now here's a surprise
I know that you have 'cause there's magic in my eyes
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.
wrong one
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176. TXCWC
Quoting ncstorm:
144 hours


168 hours


Showing the same thing as GFS IN TERMS OF A 1 DAY STALL of the Low - somebody - wheather in Mex or S.TX (or both) is in store for a potential heavy rain event.
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It's only teenage wasteland
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Quoting Grothar:
The season's a bust.
Now we will get whacked....Thanks a lot Gro....:)
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:
GULF OF MEXICO...
WESTERN EXTENSION OF ATLC RIDGE ALONG 27N WILL MOVE N TO 29N FRI
AND SAT WITH LIGHT WINDS ACROSS MUCH OF THE GULF. TROPICAL WAVE
CURRENTLY IN THE YUCATAN PENINSULA WILL MOVE INTO THE BAY OF
CAMPECHE LATER TODAY AND FRI THEN MOVE INLAND LATE SAT. SE WINDS
INCREASE TO 20 KT E OF THE TROPICAL WAVE...OTHERWISE LIGHT WINDS
ACROSS THE REMAINDER OF THE AREA. GFS DEVELOPS A LOW ALONG THE
WAVE HOWEVER WILL KEEP CURRENT WORDING AND NOT MENTION THE LOW.


Not mention it? Too late..LOL
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Quoting MississippiWx:


Well, they may not have "officially" declared one, but it is here. The MEI index is in the Top 5 strongest ever for a developing El Nino. The only thing holding CPC back is time frame since they like to see it persist for a certain amount of time.

BTW, here is the latest ENSO forecast from the Euro. Fairly strong El Nino upcoming.

I guess that is similar to a system being named out of season. We get storms in May and December when it is not "officially" hurricane season, but there it is.
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Quoting Thing342:
Way too conservative, IMO.


This is as of a couple hours ago. If you extrapolate the intensity trend the 5PM advisory would have it at 70mph and it would make hurricane at 8pm. I suspect it is near hurricane strength now but since Gordon is nowhere near hurricane hunter range we will never know how strong it actually gets unless a ship ends up in the eyewall (bad idea there).

One thing that bugs me is when the NHC forecasts steady strengthening at 5 knots/12 hours for any extended period. It seems like most storms intensify at 5 knots/6 to 10 knots/6 then level off for awhile, not steadily intensify that slowly, especially when they are fairly well developed.
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Quoting Jeff9645:
Seabreeze T-storms, should make for some good photos today.



iam sure you will get a few destin showers if you look closly you may even see a homer

focus is the key
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Quoting Thing342:
Way too conservative, IMO.

Its a 75 Mph storm at the most...
65-70 Mph is reasonable, for now.
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Quoting lovemamatus:


Meet the new blob
Same as the old blob
You Won't get fooled again
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Quoting Grothar:
The season's a bust.

does somebody need a nap?
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Quoting Grothar:
The season's a bust.
LOL.You know better
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Quoting Grothar:
The season's a bust.

What's wrong, Gro?
You sad today?
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Quoting kwgirl:
I have been debating with myself why everyone is so contentious on this blog. Arguments have been happening more and more for the last few days. I have finally concluded it is because of two factors. Heat- it is hotter than hades all over this country and makes people short tempered. AND tomorrow is a new moon. In my experience, a new moon can be worse than a full moon. Tempers are rising as the moon wans. Hence we are all LUNATICS. LOL. Enjoy the rest of your day. And because the topic is drought, is someone going to start the GW debate? Not me, I am just wondering how long it will take.


You've been debating with yourself? That's autocontentiousness. A serious problem brought on by being witness to unresolvable - and often silly - arguments. This blog, in that respect, is no different than the comments section following every MSM article on the US presidential election. Everywhere ideology; ideology masking as fact, polemic pretending to be information. My strategy is to ignore the non-weather discourse as talk is far too cheap for me to waste my time on it. Hope you recover :)

For some great analysis, go to Levi's blog.
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Quoting Neapolitan:
ATCF says:

AL, 08, 2012081618, , BEST, 0, 339N, 530W, 55, 999, TS, 50, NEQ, 20, 20, 0, 0, 1016, 150, 15, 0, 0, L, 0, , 0, 0, GORDON, D
Way too conservative, IMO.
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144 hours


168 hours
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Quoting Neapolitan:
ATCF says:

AL, 08, 2012081618, , BEST, 0, 339N, 530W, 55, 999, TS, 50, NEQ, 20, 20, 0, 0, 1016, 150, 15, 0, 0, L, 0, , 0, 0, GORDON, D

I could see gordon being at 70 Mph by the next update, and if things go well, It could very well be a Hurricane.
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The season's a bust.
Member Since: December 31, 1969 Posts: Comments:

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Cat 6 lead authors: WU cofounder Dr. Jeff Masters (right), who flew w/NOAA Hurricane Hunters 1986-1990, & WU meteorologist Bob Henson, @bhensonweather

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