What Caused the Dust Bowl?

Drought caused the Dust Bowl, right? Well, yes, but there’s a little more to the story.

We must remember that history is not a simple case of cause and effect, but rather a vast tangled web of innumerable causes and effects. This means that we probably will never have all the answers to the question of the Dust Bowl. We can, however, examine the possibilities.

What follows is a discussion of only a few of the coinciding events that might have contributed to the Dust Bowl. Hopefully this will whet your appetite for further investigation.

Solar Cycles

The effect of solar cycles on weather is not fully understood at the present time. However, people have been charting solar cycles since 1755 and weather conditions for even longer than that, and many are convinced that there is a correlation between the two phenomena.

The ins and outs of the debate over climate and solar cycles are beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that the Dust Bowl began around 1930 or 1931, depending on where you lived, and ended between 1936 and 1940. The solar minimum (period of least solar activity) occurred in 1933, while the solar maximum (period of most solar activity) appears to have been around 1936 or 1937.

Note that the Dust Bowl began as solar activity approached a low and ended about the time solar activity reached a peak (making allowance for regional variation). Coincidence? Hard to say. Some scientists believe that during periods of low solar activity, aerosol particles build up in the earth’s atmosphere, instead of being dispersed by solar ejections. These particles in turn become condensation nuclei for clouds. Clouds with large numbers of condensation nuclei tend to produce less precipitation.

What Caused the Dust Bowl?
Photo courtesy of USDA NRCS

The Plow

Much of the Great Plains was settled by the time the Dust Bowl came around. Even areas with low annual precipitation levels had been occupied by farmers, thanks to quite a bit of propaganda.

During the settlement period, land speculator Charles Dana Wilber coined the phrase, “Rain follows the plow,” summarizing an opinion that was very popular in his time. No one was exactly sure why rain might follow the plow. Some people suggested that plowing released soil moisture into the atmosphere and produced rain. Others proposed that the accompanying railroads with their smoke and cold metal rails would lead to more condensation and higher humidity. Still others more than hinted that rainfall was proof of God’s blessing on the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. In any case, plowing was considered to be beneficial to the climate.

In the early 1900s, a plethora of books were published advocating “dry farming” techniques, methods which the authors assured their readers would make the desert blossom like a rose. The prevailing theory at the time was that, since capillarity pulled moisture out of the ground, anything that would tend to break up capillary action would aid the soil in retaining moisture. Farmers were encouraged to plow the soil thoroughly and to leave a dust mulch when cultivating.

As farmers found out, however, loose dirt tends to blow around. “Rain follows the plow” is now considered an obsolete theory, and dust mulches have given way to no-till farming.

Were There Other Causes?

Dust Bowl

Of course, the two possible causes of the Dust Bowl mentioned above are just the beginning. Other theories have been proposed:

  • NASA models suggest that ocean temperatures might have shifted the jet stream and thus altered precipitation patterns.
  • World War I had given rise to the motto, “Food will win the war,” a philosophy that encouraged farmers to leave less land in grass and plant more to crops.
  • Soil conservation was not something most farmers even thought of at that point in American history.
  • The Agricultural Adjustment Act encouraged some farmers to plow crops under, leaving land fallow and susceptible to erosion in such places as hard-hit Oklahoma. The act was not passed until 1933, so its primary effect would have been to worsen the Dust Bowl, rather than directly cause it.

Further investigation would probably bring new possibilities to light.

It behooves us, therefore, to recognize that we don’t have all the answers about the Dust Bowl. Instead, we should continue to pursue the facts, examining events that occurred before and during the Dust Bowl to see if we can uncover any causes that the textbooks have forgotten. History is a gold mine of connections.

Helpful Resource

Farming the Dust Bowl

Farming the Dust Bowl
This first-hand account of life in the Dust Bowl includes some theory about why it started. Read our full review.