A Research Paper On The Dust Bowl In America

Humans have been to blame for several unfortunate disasters which have occurred throughout our history – Chernobyl, oil spills into the ocean, and the Bhopal gas leak in India, to name a few. One such human disaster which lasted for almost a decade was an era most commonly known as the Dust Bowl. Also referred to as the “Dirty Thirties”, it was a series of dust storms which affected the Southern Plains in the United States of America during a dry period, from 1930 until the end of 1939. There were four different episodes of drought events which took place over the 1930s: 1930-1931, 1934, 1936, and 1939-1940. However, the affected areas were unable to recover from the previous storm before the next one hit, and so the series of storms were looked at as if it were one, decade-long event. These storms affected the states of Oklahoma, Kansas, Texas, Nebraska, Colorado and New Mexico. Although not as drastic as the six main states in the Midwest, several other states, and even the Prairies in Canada, felt the effects of the dust storms. Fourteen dust storms were recorded in 1932, and the number went up to approximately forty within one year. The worst dust storm was recorded on April 14, 1935 – it was thousands of feet high and hundreds of miles wide. This day was dubbed “Black Sunday” because of the black blizzard – dust storm – which turned the streets dark and cloudy during the day.

The Great Depression was developing in the late 1920s, and the events of the droughts worsened the effect of it. Farmers started to lose business since the market prices for their crops had to be lowered during the economic recession America was facing at the time. Ultimately, they could no longer make a sustainable living in the Great Plains. Moreover, children and seniors were beginning to face health problems from excessive exposure to dust. Dust pneumonia, also known as the “brown plague” was taking its toll on vulnerable populations. This lead to several families migrating to other American cities in search of work and a new life. The droughts in the Midwest continued all the way until the fall of 1939, when normal levels of rainfall finally started to occur again in the dry and water deprived regions. The destruction of the soil in the Great Plains during the Dirty Thirties can still be seen today.


Droughts are an inevitable part of nature that farmlands face roughly every 25 years (PBS). Human error, however, amplified the effects of the environmental change those who resided in the Southern Plains faced. The environment, economy and humans were all to blame for the dust storms experienced during the Dust Bowl. Namely, the main causes of this disaster were the “economic depression coupled with extended drought, unusually high temperatures, poor agricultural practices and the resulting wind erosion” (Trimarchi, 2008). Farmers took part in poor land management practices prior to the start of the drought, in the 1920s. Climate in the area was also altering due to the settlement of humans, and despite there being repeated droughts, it was followed by periods of rainfalls, and so no one understood the need to change the farming practices they were following (National Drought Mitigation Center). People who were trying to promote settlement in the Great Plains provided misleading information about the areas agricultural potential to settlers. Those who moved to these areas also had no experience farming in such conditions. When they first settled, during the wet cycle, crops were blossoming due to higher amounts of rainfall. As the atmosphere began to grow drier and drier, farmers continued to use improper techniques which were unsuitable for the altering climate of the Great Plains. They continued using outdated farming methods well into periods of drought.

Following World War I, farmers tried new mechanized farming techniques in an effort to increase their profit during the Great Depression. They ended up plowing over 5 million acres of unfarmed land over the span of 5 years, from 1925 to 1930. There was an abundance of wheat, but families affected by the recession were too poor to afford it. Consequently, an overproduction of wheat, coupled with the recession, caused the market price of crops to be reduced. Since farmers could not make back their production costs, they had to find a way to make up for the money they were losing. Their best farmlands were already being used, and so they moved to create farms on lands which weren’t ideal for farming in order to increase farmland availability. They resorted to replacing natural, drought-resistant grasses by expanding their fields in an attempt to make a profit. Plow-based farming lead to the loss of fertile topsoil which was blown away due to high winds. The farmlands were susceptible to drought and farmers were unable to grow their crops either. This ultimately led to soil erosion and nutrient leeching, and caused crop failures for farmers, leading them to be more vulnerable to drought. Crops could not grow since there was not enough rainfall, increased dust storms, high temperatures and winds.

All in all, proper soil conservation methods were abandoned by farmers in order to save money, as a result of the great depression. Furthermore, farmers switched plows to ones that heightened the risk of blowing soil, on poor farming lands which weren’t ideal for growing crops, in order to increase income. Soil moisture depletion, wind erosion, soil nutrient depletion, and drought vulnerability were all the result of poor farming techniques.


The repercussions that came along with the Dust Bowl were many, but one of the most important was the effect on the health of farmers and their families. Dust is known to cause irritations in the respiratory tract, and tar and soot can also invade the lungs and cause cancer (Blue, 1938). One can expect that after being exposed to dust for as long as the individuals who resided in the Southern Plain, several health complications arose. The inhalation of dust lead to dust coating their lungs, causing coughing spasms, asthma, bronchitis and even influenza. Though not many deaths occurred as a direct result of the Dust Bowl, several children and elderly people were more susceptible and fell victim to what was known as “dust pneumonia”. With huge walls of dust engulfing the states of the Southern Plains, residents were exposed to it for long periods of time, ultimately leading to their lungs and respiratory tracts being covered in dirt and the alveoli becoming inflamed. This in turn stopped the cilia from moving and the lungs struggled to clear themselves. With dust in their phlegm, individuals would cough up chunks of dirt, sometimes three to four inches long. In an attempt to get rid of the dusty phlegm in the lungs and throats, people tried several home remedies but to no avail. As they inhaled more dust particles overtime, the number of people who died from pneumonia and other illnesses increased. Although the exact number of people who died from dust pneumonia was not recorded, it is estimated to have been the cause for hundreds of deaths – some even say the death toll went into the thousands. While the majority of people did not die from dust pneumonia, they suffered life-long breathing problems as a result of the excessive exposure to dust.

Environmental and Socioeconomic Impact

Alongside the deadly biological effects of the Dust Bowl was the socioeconomic impact of it. As mentioned earlier, the unfortunate events of the Dust Bowl occurred right around the time of the Great Depression. Families all over the United States were suffering financially as a result of the economic recession the nation was facing. With families being too poor to afford wheat and other crops, farmers were forced to drive down their prices in order to make any sales. “The Dust Bowl is thought to have left an estimated 500,00 people homeless and caused an estimated 2.5 million to pack up and move elsewhere” (LaSane, 2019). Farmers were forced out of business and their homes as a result of the drop in their crop prices, and so millions of them migrated west from drought ridden areas in order to find work. The majority of them fled to California or other cities to find work, which had disappeared once they got there. As newcomers to these new areas, they had to compete for employment with those who had already been residing there for much longer. However, the number of migrant workers who moved from the great plains to these cities outnumbered the number of jobs which were actually available to everyone. This caused tension between long-time residents and the migrant farmers.

In a desperate measure to make a sustainable living, farmers slaughtered about 6 million pigs in 1933 in order to reduce supply and increase prices in the market. Farmers had sold 10% of their lands in 1934, half of which were because of the droughts and the economic recession the nation was facing. Several families had to government assistance, with an estimated 21% of all families in the Great Plains receiving funding from federal emergency relief, as reported by the Works Progress Administration. Approximately $1 billion was spent in attempt to provide aid and relief to those affected by the droughts by 1934.

When looking at the environmental impact of the Dust Bowl, it is clear that this disaster destroyed the farmlands in the Great Plains. It is thought to be the worst and longest environmental disaster to have occurred in American history. According to PBS, “by the end of 1934, roughly 35 million acres of farmland were ruined, and the topsoil covering 100 million acres had blown away.” There was also an infestation of jackrabbits and grasshoppers in the areas where droughts persisted. These animals destroyed whatever crops the dust storms and soil erosion did not damage. Infested fields were burned, and jackrabbits were driven into pens in order to be crushed to death.

Farmers over plowed the lower quality farmlands in an attempt to produce more crops and create more business. What they did not realize was that they were removing the naturally occurring, drought-resistant grasses which were keeping the topsoil in place. Once the soil was exposed and rainfall ceased, all of the dirt dried up and were vulnerable to being swept by high winds. As the topsoil blew away with the wind, livestock were also blinded and their stomachs were coated and filled with two inches of sand. Soon after, the animals died due to blindness, exhaustion and thirst.

Preventative measures which could have been taken

Understandably, nothing can really be done in order to prevent droughts since they occur naturally. However, farmers had endured droughts in the past and nothing close to as devastating as the Dust Bowl has resulted from it. Those who first settled in the Great Plains were not educated in the proper agricultural practices they needed to take part in. They were provided with misleading information about the potential the farmlands held, and so they brought along the same farming techniques they used to use in different regions, which were unsuitable for the soils in the Great Plains. As new mechanized farming techniques were used in an attempt to increase crop production and profit, drought-resistant plants and grasses which were holding the soil down in place were plowed and replaced.

The disastrous Dust Bowl could have been prevented had farmers been more educated about the importance of having drought-resistant plants on farmland. Preventative measures should have been taken in order to prevent the soil erosion which was bound to happen from the over plowing of the farmlands. Once farmers started to realize that the soil was eroded, they could have at least minimized the dust storms by replanting the drought-resistant strains of grass. As crops were cut down and plowed, the crop residues could have also been left on the fields in order to cover the soil and hold them down from being blown away. Moreover, high winds were the reason the dried-up soil was lifted and blown across states. The planting of trees could have minimized the storms by breaking the wind before it could lift the eroded soil up off the fields.

What was done to fix it?

The impact that the Dust Bowl had on the economy during the 1930s was tremendous. Although the majority or farmers and their families stayed put in the Great Plains throughout the drought, several of them migrated to other states and cities in order to make a living. These farmers lost their businesses and most were struggling to find jobs in these new cities to support their families. Essentially, government financial aid and education on proper farming methods is what helped relieve the dramatic effects of the Dust Bowl.

Prior to the droughts in the 1930s, the federal government had withheld providing aid during emergency situations, with preference to self-reliant approaches. However, following the deflation due to the Great Depression and the inauguration of President Franklin Roosevelt, the “passive role of the government” was beginning to alter. Roosevelt came up with New Deal programs which paved the way for future drought relief programs in the Great Plains. These relief programs aimed to reduce the effects of the drought and the resulting vulnerability of land. Health care facilities and supplies were established in order to provide medical care for those who needed it following chronic exposure to dust. Relief programs also aimed to allow farmers to maintain the functioning of their farms by providing emergency supplies, livestock feed and transport and cash. Aside from providing financial aid in order to fix the devastating effects of the Dust Bowl, the programs also tried to implement practices which could reduce the likelihood of the Great Plains being as vulnerable to droughts and dust storms again. They provided the technology, supplies and advice which farmers needed in order to encourage proper land management practices and strategies. Moreover, the Civil Conservation Corps (CCC) was launched in 1934, which was a program which aimed to contribute towards the conservation of water, flood control and prevent soil erosion in the future. Dead trees were removed and replaced with new trees in order to lessen the psychological stress endured from the droughts, and provide protection to the farmlands from high winds which may recur in the future.

Between the years of 1933 and 1935, several programs and relief aids were introduced in order to help those affected by the Dust Bowl, including the “Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, the Resettlement Administration, the Farm Security Administration, the Land Utilization Program and the Drought Relief Service” (National Drought Mitigation Center). The farming methods which farmers used prior to the drought in the 1930s were altered by seeding the affected areas with grass, and using new planting and plowing methods. Farmers were skeptical at first to change their ways of farming, since they had been using the same techniques for years. In 1936, however, an agricultural expert convinced Congress to pay farmers to use new farming methods which would promote healthy soil and progressively restore the farmlands. By 1937, soil loss in the affected areas was decreased by 65 percent. In 1937, the “total assistance was estimated at $1 billion in 1930s dollars”.

The Dust Bowl was the most economically draining environmental disaster in American history. Its effects could have been greatly reduced had farmers been more educated on the proper farming techniques which needed to be used in the Great Plains.  

16 December 2021
Your Email

By clicking “Send”, you agree to our Terms of service and  Privacy statement. We will occasionally send you account related emails.

close thanks-icon

Your essay sample has been sent.

Order now
Still can’t find what you need?

Order custom paper and save your time
for priority classes!

Order paper now