The Black Blizzard

I saw a documentary today called the Black Blizzard.  The film was on the history channel and discussed the dust bowl of the mid-West that was caused by man.  It seems that Americans in our zeal to conquer North America created the worst ecological disaster of all times. 

Here’s how:

In 1862, Abraham Lincoln passed the Homestead Act which gave 160 acres of land to homesteaders for free in the med-west if cultivated.  Many Europeans made their way there and claimed land and by 1910 1/3 of the 100 million acres of the great plains had been settled and cultivated.  In 1909 the land allowance was doubled to 320 acres and the government offered free train rides for all perspective farmers.  By 1919, 75 million acres (3/4) of the plains were gone and were being farmed.  The first two decades of the 20th century, rainfall averaged 20 inches per year and the wheat crop was plentiful.  Many farmers became rich and by 1920, towns grew and everyone prospered. 

In 1929, the stock market crashed and the price of wheat fell…suddenly the need for wheat was gone.  To make matters worse in 1931, it rained only 17 inches that year and a drought began.  The drought caused crop failure and with no crop or native grasses, the soil was open to erosion.  Wind was always prevalent on the plains and wind velocity could easily reach fifty miles per hour.  By the end of 1930, dust storms began.  Farmers had no idea that the soil would erode and they watched helplessly as one storm after another carried away their fertile soil.  Storms could last for hours or for days at a time as the topography of the plains changed to barren, useless land.

Death from dust pneumonia and widespread disease was prevalent although death records were not found.  Most of the fatalities were children.  With the drought came a heat wave which further caused loss of vegetation.  With natural predators gone, grasshoppers and jack rabbits multiplied.  The grasshoppers damaged the farming equipment eating all the wood in sight.  Nature was out of control!

Static electricity was a problem that also killed crops and touching a car could give you a static jolt that could knock a man out.

With no money, many farmers lost their farms to bank foreclosure but three out of four people stayed with the help of neighbors buying their property for a nickel at auction which was easy to repay. 

By the spring of 1935, there were 189 registered black blizzards and yet the government did not step in to help.  The dust in the atmosphere had actually caused the drought to continue because it reflected the sun’s rays back in to space.  There was little evaporation so there was little rain.

On April 14, 1935, the largest dust storm ever seen covered the all lands east to the Atlantic coast.  It was called Black Sunday.  The storm, at its peak, was 20,000 ft. high by 1000 miles wide.  More than 300 million tons of topsoil was swept up and redeposited that day.

Hugh Bennett, a soil scientist, declared that the dust bowl was man-made.  Two weeks later, Roosevelt created the Soil Conservation Service and assigned Bennett its leader.  Bennet pushed to regrow and seed the plains and in 1936 Operation Dust Bowl began.  Bennett educated farmers in crop rotation and contour farming and by 1938 the farmers began to see results.  By the fall of 1939 the drought had ended.  It had been nine long years, all of which could have been avoided.

There are still towns in Kansas, Colorado, Northern Texas and the Oklahoma panhandle that never recovered from the dust storms of the 30’s.   

Today China and Africa are both experiencing dust storms, due to the same mistakes.  Our environment is fragile and interconnected.  We must not forget that our actions have consequences.

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