Return of the Dirty Thirties — with a vengeance

Might we live to see another dust bowl drought, only this time worse?

We’re all pretty confident we’ll never experience another dust bowl. So much so that it never even enters our conscious minds. Zero till, irrigation and drought-tolerant crops remove all fear of a repeat.

But maybe we’re all wrong.

Two researchers at the University of Chicago think so.

They argue that it’s inevitable we will experience massive crop failures like those our parents and grand-parents saw in the 1930s.

Only, the next dust bowl will be even more devastating for crops than the one 80 years ago, say Michael Glitter, a graduate student in geophysical sciences, and Joshua Elliott, a scientist at the Center Climate and Energy Policy.

The researchers analyzed historical weather and crop data to see how extreme drought and heat would affect corn, soybeans and wheat. They found that conditions similar to the 1930s would drastically reduce modern crop yields.

“We expected to find the system much more resilient because 30 percent of production is now irrigated in the United States and because we’ve abandoned corn production in more severely drought-stricken places such as Oklahoma and West Texas,” Elliott said.


“But we found the opposite. The system was just as sensitive to drought and heat as it was in the 1930s.”

Farming technology has advanced in the past eight decades, but most of the effort has concentrated on yield rather than resilience and sustainability. Elliot said in a report that many of North America’s main crops remain vulnerable to extreme weather.

Added Glotter: “We knew a dust bowl-type drought would be devastating, even for modern agriculture, but we expected technological advancements to mitigate those damages much more than our results suggested,” he said.

“Technology has evolved to make yields as high as possible in normal years. But as extreme events be-come more frequent and severe, we may have to reframe how we breed crops and select for variance and resilience, not just for average yield.”

The researchers said a decade like the 1930s would be more catastrophic now because today’s severe drought conditions are accompanied by rising temperatures.

“By mid-century, even a normal year in precipitation could be as bad as what we saw in 1936,” Elliott said. “And a year with even a 10 to 20 percent loss of precipitation becomes extraordinarily damaging.”


  • Kathleen

    The newer sustainable organic farming practices will be an exception to this I believe given they deal with increasing plant productivity through improving the soil health and companion planting, and using management practices rather than merely changing genetics for increased productivity.

    • Vicki Dutton

      I would disagree: when producing annual crops in organic agriculture tillage is required to control weeds: tillage exposes the soil to the wind, and reduces the organic matter, and dries the soil out. It is management practices such as zero till which increases soil health (residues remain on the soil like a mulch retaining moisture, the stubble protecting the earth from evasive winds, shading new growth), all of this serves to conserve moisture. However zero till farming practices require chemical control of weeds, but undisturbed soil is clearly what enables production & conserves moisture in dry years.

      It blows me away to think that folks think organic is good for the soil.

      • Welderone

        To start with when we had weather conditions like in the 1930s in would make no difference organic or zero till. Because with no crops growing on zero till land because of lack of rain and organic land, soon the soil would cause a dust bowl like the thirties with wind. Yes, zero till stubble is better at protecting the earth from evasive winds. But in my RM there is land that has always been seeded crop one year, summer fallow the next year, since the land was broken with a plow and horses. And with the proper amount of rain the land grows 30 bushels to the acre wheat without fertilizer. So it appears the land has done just fine. But isn’t the real purpose of zero till to grow more grain and the stubble protecting the land only a side factor.

  • Matthew

    Well, Kathleen…

    In the 1930s, the “dust bowl” effect was made worse by continuous tillage combined with bad weather. This way of farming was done because everything was technically “organic” and it was the only way to kill weeds so the crop could grow. Planter technology at the time also necessitated this to work. Current biotechnology and breeding programs are the best asset we have against drought because the plants become much more efficient with water usage. You are right about cover crops or “companion planting” being a viable option to incorporate into farming as well and it is happening more and more. Why can’t we use all of the tools at our disposal to encourage sustainable farming rather than be hardlined conventional or organic?