Skip Navigation Links

Must America prepare for the "Great Drought" of the 1970's?

In 1971, the American Southwest was hit by a severe drought.
Will conditions ease next year or must America prepare for a prolonged and devastating drought?


AID YOUR heaven that is over your head shall be brass, and the earth that is under you shall be iron. The Lord shall make the rain of your land powder and dust; from heaven shall it come down upon you, until you be destroyed," wrote Moses in the Old Testament.

Periodically, such prophecies have descended upon nations ancient and modern with almost apocalyptic vengeance. Although often falling short of the ultimate horror — utter destruction of land by drought — a cyclical pattern of devastating drought has been striking the North American continent about every 20 years.

In 1971 a new and perhaps very critical pattern of drought began once again.


Dust Bowl Crisis?

Those who remember the agony of the 1930's Dust Bowl do not want to relive its possible repetition during the 1970's. Yet, if the past is any key to the future, the great drought of the 70's, already under way, may well develop into "Dust Bowl" proportions.

In the 1930's disaster of dryness, millions of acres of rich farm land became powder and dust from the Canadian border to Mexico. The North American Great Plains covering parts of nearly a dozen states was hardest hit.


Black Blizzards of Death

Incredible and sobering accounts of the drought and dust devastation of the 1930's testify to man's utter dependence on a critical necessity we generally take for granted — WATER. In the 1930's, lack of water, blistering wind, and man's foolish farming practices resulted in the Dust Bowl. Startling facts about that decade of drought make farmers today cringe at the thought of its return.

Then, massive blankets of topsoil disappeared from America's heartland as rains turned to dust.

During one dust storm of May 11, 1934, an estimated 300,000,000 tons of topsoil were scoured off the Great Plains, America's breadbasket.

In some places, a foot or more of fertile topsoil blew off fields, piling up along fence rows, covering neighboring fields. Incredible black billowing clouds composed of topsoil rose to great heights. People as far as Washington D.C., New York City, and ships on the Atlantic were dusted with Kansas topsoil. One day in 1934 even the U.S. Congress had the problem graphically portrayed before its eyes when a dust cloud engulfed the Capitol.

Some reports have estimated that 25% of the farmlands in the Great Plains belt from Mexico to Canada were permanently ruined. The richness that nature had bestowed over the centuries was carried off in a matter of days in clouds of dust.

Crops were often a total loss, especially in southwestern Kansas and over great areas elsewhere.

Sixteen and twenty hours a day farmers worked the fields to save their land. They struggled in dust and in cold. Some, weakened by excessive dust in their lungs, were hospitalized. Winter temperatures were so cold the crankcase oil in tractors held together like thick honey. And dust trickled deep inside engine carburetors, cylinders and oil pans.

Black blizzards swept over the land. The sun appeared faintly as a blood-red ball at midday, if it shone at all. Auto engines failed from static electricity due to millions of charged dust particles in the air. When cars stalled, motorists set out on foot to find help. Some suffocated in the darkening dust. Birds flew wildly ahead of oncoming storms. Finally, exhausted, they fell to the ground to suffocate. Jackrabbits died by the thousands, throats clogged with dust.

Fences were buried by dust to the tops of posts. Wagons, farm implements and even houses disappeared under mounds of drift. Yet some farmers stayed on.


Personal Tragedies

One farmer's 1932 experience was typical. His wheat crop was ruined. Next, a seeding of barley was blown away. Determined to harvest a crop, he seeded maize. Paradoxically, rains came — in torrents, 12 inches in June that year. The maize grew well, attaining 2 feet in height. Then the rains ceased. Clouds floated by, but there was no rain. As the maize began to "head out," it dried up for lack of moisture.

This same local farmer of southwestern Kansas summed up his own situation during 1932:

"I had planted wheat in 1929, in 1930, and in 1931. I had planted barley and I had planted maize. I had planted five crops and harvested only one, for which I received a miserable, low price. You might have thought I would have become convinced that there was no profit in farming wheat in the Great Plains. But I was a glutton for punishment, and here I was planting wheat again, and still hoping." (An Empire of Dust, by Lawrence Svobida)

All he received for his labor was, as the title suggests, an empire of dust.

These personal tragedies of Great Plains farming experience exemplify the suffering and misery of thousands of families during the 1930's. No crops, no livelihood. Farmers packed up and moved west to California (where you supposedly could reach out anywhere and pick an orange off a tree!), Oregon — and of course, cities everywhere.


Repetition of Dust Bowl?

For most people the 1930's drought is so much history. But history has a habit of repeating itself.

Once again, farmers are asking themselves: Will the beginning drought conditions of the 1970's end in a repetition of the 1930's drought? Or could the current drought be WORSE than others before it?

The whole question of drought is, of course, dependent upon RAINFALL. Every farmer yearns to have the Biblical promise of "rain in due season" come true. Yet, most nations have not received rain when needed, where needed and in the amounts needed.

So badly have people wanted to break droughts that ancient tribes performed various incantations in hopes of persuading their god to send rain. Rain dances and other practices presumably appeased the gods who could give or withhold rain.

Even in these modern times, men have looked to a Higher Power to send rainfall and thus break drought devastation.

One interesting, and apparently serious, example was reported in the news when a San Angelo, Texas, advertising man put up a billboard which pleaded, "PRAY FOR RAIN." The area was then suffering a long-term drought, one of the worst of its history.

Yet, to the dismay of the businessman, local groups pressured for the removal of the sign.

"Why?" he asked.

"Because God doesn't make it rain," they reportedly replied.

"Well, if He doesn't, I don't know who does," admitted the bewildered businessman.

One world-known weather authority and one time Assistant Chief of the U.S. Weather Bureau, Ivan Ray Tannehill, commented on this attitude of mind:

"In America we have a drought problem but it is not yet a question of famine. But it is characteristic of the American people that we like to cross our bridges only when we come to them. In times of heavy rainfall we talk of flood control and in times of drought we talk of soil conservation. . . . We must examine the records of weather and climate and identify the withering hand that falls upon our farms and ranges every few years" (Drought, Its Causes and Effects, Ivan Ray Tannehill, p. 22).

Furthermore, the same author stated, "History shows that drought lies at the bottom of most famines." To the average, well-fed Westerner the thought of famine is a joke. "Why, with modern technology and current farming practices we'll never have famine," some might think. But this head-in-the-sand approach is dangerous.


Man's Short-sightedness

Sadly, it is man's mismanagement of land that has helped make drought such a destructive force. Prior to the opening up of the vast U.S. Great Plains grassland for lucrative wheat farming, there was little or no erosion in the area. Historically, the rains came; so did periods of drought, and fierce winds. But the rich earth was protected by thick buffalo grass sod, which carpeted this heartland against wind or water erosion.

Then came pioneer farmers and their short-sightedness. They ploughed up vast areas of natural grasses, leaving scant protection for the bare earth, not considering the harsh winds which attack the American Middle West annually. The planting of trees as wind breaks was seldom considered. Ecologist Paul Sears put his finger on the problem with this observation: "The high plains are subject to recurring periods of drought, usually lasting for several years, and alternating with groups of normal or moist years. To this regime the native grasses were adjusted. Wheat was not. And when the prolonged dryness of the 1930's came the fall-sown wheat failed to germinate, leaving nothing to hold the loose soils against the high winds of late winter and spring. With them came dust storms, made gigantic by the presence of hundreds of thousands of acres of bare soil."

Unfortunately, sound ecological principles in farming were too often neglected even when these facts were understood.

Little thought was given to the long-range effects upon the land. Some future generation would handle these problems, it was thought. Soil conservation was born only out of the terrible Dust Bowl days. Tragically, it took devastating erosion to move some farmers to become conservation minded.

Today, economic realities restrict even well-meaning farmers from practicing total conservation, since they must be concerned with making profits or going under economically. Unfortunately, economics and other forces all too often encourage farmers to neglect sound ecological principles.

And in this economic straitjacket, farmers find science is hamstrung in its ability to help. Implementing the inventions and discoveries of science costs the farmer money, which often he doesn't have because prices for his crops are too low. His dilemma is real.

To the average farmer, looking out over parched fields, insect-laden crops — thinking of the low profit on his crops and the high costs of farming — must come the thought, "There must be a better way." There must be a better way to farm, a better way to get rid of insect plagues, a better way to manage a farm economy, and a better way to receive enough precious water.