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The Dust Bowl and Sea Level

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 4:56 AM GMT on June 11, 2012

The Dust Bowl and Sea Level

One of my favorite blogs in my portfolio is Science, Belief and the Volcano. In that blog I referenced The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great America Dust Bowl by Timothy Egan. I will use this later in this blog.

Several people brought me the news that some in North Carolina want to fight the predictions of sea-level rise. Likewise several have mentioned Colbert’s piece on this initiative. According to the news article several North Carolina local governments have “passed resolutions against sea-level rise policies.” Here is an interesting blog in Scientific American on the proposed law.

Here is a link to the proposed bill. There is a provision that if sea-level rise projections are needed then

“These rates shall only be determined using historical data, and these data shall be limited to the time period following the year 1900. Rates of sea-level rise may be extrapolated linearly to estimate future rates of rise but shall not include scenarios of accelerated rates of sea-level rise.”

The bill also discusses, at length, a variety of programs related to building setbacks for coastal building. Obviously, perhaps, “accelerated rates of sea-level rise” are not good for new or old construction on the coast. Not good for the insurance companies either. (and here as well)

So back to the Dust Bowl. The Dust Bowl was comprised of the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles, and the neighboring parts of Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nebraska. Three towns in the center of this region are Boise City and Guymon, Oklahoma and Dalhart, Texas. The following map from mapshop.com sets the scene.

Figure 1: Map of the U.S. Dust Bowl Region in the 1930s, from mapshop.com

It is hard to write in a paragraph the extremes of the degradation of the land; weather, hot and cold; dust drifts; mud falling from the sky; houses and villages buried in the dust; and a whole set of plagues and illnesses that killed and drove away people. The cause of the Dust Bowl was a convergence of many factors ranging from farm policy and farm practices; to overly ambitious civic and corporate growth; to extreme heat, drought, wind, and winter storms. From the perspective of the climate scientist, it becomes an interesting question of once the conditions of the Dust Bowl were realized, how much did the lack of vegetation and soil moisture contribute to the perpetuation of the extreme weather? (See, for instance, Schubert et al., Science, 2004)

There was also a certain element of fate. When there was a burst of development and expansion in the Dust Bowl region, there was also a period of above average rain. At some level this seemed to be known at the time, and there were those, including companies, who argued that the development of the land, the plowing, steam from the train, the disruption, was actually the cause of rain. This acceptance of the idea that people were having a positive impact on the weather, and essentially the climate, would ultimately stand in stark contrast to their denial and rejection of the notion that their behavior could be having a negative effect.

There are two points that I want to draw from the The Worst Hard Time. The first was the attempt to reframe the dust storms in support of building, development, and community. In Dalhart, Texas, the town paper, the Texan, started a campaign with a tribute to the sand storms as majestic events that should draw people in to see the wonder. There was outrage that the East Coast and national press was trying to slander the town and the region – trying to discredit the people of the region by blaming them for the degradation of the land and dust in air. There were those in the East saying that those in the Dust Bowl were exaggerating their situation trying to extort money from Washington.

There was in this campaign a quest to make the dust storms majestic and divinely positive events, a rejection of both the obvious collapse of people and towns and of the increasing scientific evidence that at the very core of the collapse was the behavior of people. From the Texan, John McCarty, wrote that people should

“view the majestic splendor and beauty of one of the great spectacles of nature, a panhandle dust storm, and smile even though we may be choking and our throats and nostrils so laden with dust that we cannot give voice to our feelings.” ( The Worst Hard Time, page 185)

There was something of boasting of bigger storms in other states. Then there was blame that dust of other states was the cause of their grief.

There was rejection of the growing scientific evidence that the breaking of the soil stabilizing root structure of the native grasses was at the foundation of the collapse. And while this science that challenged the will of the people was rejected, anecdotal evidence that was attributed with the strength of science was used when it matched their will or need. Of especial note was the observation that when there had been a rush of people to the Dust Bowl region, there had been both rain and a World War. For a hundred years people had associated rain with war. Therefore, towns would bring in experts with cannons and explosions. A literature developed on using dust as mulch for crops.

The second point I want to make is the depth of the denial or suspicion of the mounting scientific evidence that the behavior of humans was responsible for the degradation of the soil and the sky full of dirt. This was not only a position held by those with a belief that man could not, while working God’s will, cause such damage (see here, perhaps), or those with a vested interest in real estate and business, but also, President Roosevelt and many in Washington who did not want to believe that America’s destiny to make the whole country productive was challenged by pursuit of that destiny. Ultimately, however, Roosevelt accepted the scientific foundation and massive programs to stabilize and reclaim the land were initiated. Many would argue, I included, that even today we struggle to sustain this reclamation and recovery.

So I am asked about how I respond to those in North Carolina who want to reject the predictions of sea level rise – to prescribe, by law, how such predictions might be made. I start with saying I have more experience on the coast of North Carolina than most. I spent many years in Craven and Carteret County on the mouth of the Neuse River. My father had small pieces of land from Long Beach to Kitty Hawk. My job was to keep grass cut, deal with diamondbacks, and try to stop waves and water taking away land. We built cabins out of abandoned bridge trestles and telephone poles. I have built seawalls and seen these cabins moved by waves from hurricanes (They’re tough.) I can see in my mind exactly where 1 meter, 39 inches, of sea level rise will sit.

Figure 2: Cypress Knees on the shore of the Neuse River after Hurricane Floyd, 1999.

If I were standing next to the Neuse River talking to a neighbor, I would say that with the evidence and knowledge I have, that a 1 meter rise in sea level was a considered best estimate of a lot of information. If I were to conjecture, I would offer that I think that 1 meter is more likely an underestimate than an exaggeration. And as for the proposed law, I would think of previous efforts to legislate the numerical value of pi, and the people in the Dust Bowl trying to sell the idea that all of the scientific information was part of a fraud trying to advance some cultural agenda. I would dismiss the proposed law as an attempt to legislate away that which stands in the way of our desires to consume and build for our personal imperatives. I would dismiss it as politics and note the names of the un-serious politicians for the next election.


P.S. My last blog was reproduced at this site with the question posed to the reader:

“Is Rood being intentionally deceptive, or is he just not very bright?”

Now in my defense, I have stated a number of times over the years that I am not so smart (here for instance); hence, that question should be easy to answer. I always felt growing up that the only time I was the smartest in the room was when I was alone. So if you decide to answer that question, then the extended answer might use Form of Argument: Adventures in Rhetoric as a hint.

Just having fun,


Figure 3: Dinosaur sculpture in Boise City, OK – taken June 2005 on the road.

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