Natural and Man-Made Disasters

Dust Bowl

What were the effects of the dust bowl?

After the dust had settled in the spring of 1934, the reaction among many Great Plains farm families was to flee the devastation: More than 350,000 people packed up their belongings and headed west, their lives forever changed by the disaster. In his 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath, American writer and Nobel laureate John Steinbeck (1902–1968) chronicled the harrowing and sorrowful westward journey of one Oklahoma family that was among the so-called “Okies” who deserted their farmlands in the devastated area of the Great Plains in search of a better life elsewhere.

Nature alone was not to blame for the dust bowl: By the end of the nineteenth century, farmers, aided by the advent of large tractors and reapers (harvesting machines), were cultivating the Great Plains, uprooting the native buffalo grass, which holds moisture in the soil, keeping it from blowing away. Even strong winds and extended droughts had not disturbed the land when it was covered by the grassland. When the demand for wheat increased after World War I (1914–18), farmers responded by planting more than 27 million new acres of the grain. By 1930 there were almost three times as many acres in wheat production as 10 years earlier: most of the buffalo grass that had prevented the earth from blowing had been removed. When the next dry period came (in spring 1934) and the wind picked up, the dust bowl resulted.

The government stepped in to remedy the problem: Soil conservation became the focus of federal agencies, and the U.S. Forest Service undertook a project to plant a “shelter belt” of trees within a 100-mile-wide zone, from Canada to the Texas Panhandle. Recovery was aided by the return of the rains. Soon the buffalo grass had grown back, helping to ensure that the dust bowl would not recur.


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