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The 1930's Western Dust Bowl Horror May Be Back And Worse

 

By James Donahue

 

The drought that has gripped the Western United States for the last decade has now expanded to include over half of the lower 48 states. It not only threatens to bring back images of the Dust Bowl days of the 1930's, it may impact crops, the food supply and lives from coast-to-coast.

 

A recent story in USA Today noted that a decade-long drought that began in the Southwest led to an estimated $10 billion in agricultural losses in Texas and other southern states in 2011, and conditions have grown even worse this spring. Nearly 61 percent of the country is either in a drought condition or “abnormally dry” according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

 

The unusually warm winter, lack of snow pack in the mountains, and general lack of rainfall has intensified the problem this spring.

 

A report by the U.S. Geological Survey states that the current dry spell is the worst on record, and a study of tree rings suggests it hasn't been this arid for at least 500 years. And the bad news is that the problem may persist for several more decades.

 

`"We've seen from tree-ring records that the area has had some droughts 50 years in length,'' said Greg McCabe, one of the study's co-authors. "We haven't had anything like that in a long, long time, and there is always a concern that we could be heading into one of those.''

 

The report also notes that the flow of water in the mighty Colorado River, that ranchers from Utah, Colorado, Arizona and Nevada and south into Mexico rely on, has dropped to a critical level. The annual flow from 1995 through 2004 is averaging 9.9 million acre-feet. The lowest prior record was in a period from 1584 to 1595 when the flow was estimated at 9.7 million acre-feet.

 

From 2001 to 2003 the average flow on the Colorado dropped to an incredible 5.4 million acre-feet measured at Lees Ferry, Arizona, the report said. By comparison, during the Dust Bowl years, the annual flow averaged about 10.2 million acre-feet.

 

The report notes that droughts have had a record of lasting no more than a decade, or 10 years, which means the current drought should be nearly over. But the impact of the warming earth and climate change has created an unknown scenario that has left weather prognosticators struggling to forecast anything with any accuracy. This may mean that ranchers and towns throughout the western states won't see relief on the current water crisis for years. And those prairie and forest fires will continue to keep fire fighters busy as long as there is grass and timber left to burn.

 

Brush fires this spring are burning out-of-control along the East Coast from Florida north to New York, and the fire danger is high this year in places that rarely see this kind of dryness.

  

Warm water temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean tend to correspond with droughts in the U.S., said McCabe. He said the Atlantic is warm now, similar to how it was during the Dust Bowl drought of the early 1930s.

 

The Pacific Ocean also is warming, which also has an El-Nino effect on the world's weather. Strangely, however, a La-Nina effect, or cooled Pacific surface temperature, has been blamed for the lack of snow this year in the U.S.

 

Scientists warn that a layer of smog and other particles collecting in the atmosphere surrounding the Earth is blocking sunlight and may be causing less evaporation of water from lakes and oceans. This in turn is reducing global rainfall. Statistics show that desert regions are growing all over the world. Large areas of China and Africa are turning into desert, as is much of Australia. Could this be a permanent problem for the Western United States?

 

The Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s lasted only about a decade, from 1930 to 1937 and affected southern plains states like Oklahoma and Kansas the hardest. The drought was marked by large dust storms that forced farmers to flee their barren fields. Author John Steinbeck best depicted their plight in his historic novel Grapes of Wrath.