What Caused the Dust Bowl?

By: Maria Trimarchi  | 
dust bowl
A large dust cloud appears behind a truck traveling on highway 59 south of Lamar, Colorado, May 1936. PhotoQuest/Getty Images

When pione­ers headed west in the late 19th century, many couldn't resist the lure of the tall, gras­sy land in the semiarid midwestern and southern plains of the United States. They settled there to farm.

They were prosperous in the following decades, but when the 1930s rolled in, so did strong winds, drought and dust clouds that plagued nearly 75 percent of the United States between 1931 and 1939 [source: Library of Congress]. The era became known as the legendary Dust Bowl.


The Dust Bowl brought ecological, economic and human misery to the U.S. when it was already suffering under the Great Depression. While the economic decline caused by the Great Depression played a role, it was har­dly the only guilty party.

What Caused the Dust Bowl?

Economic depression coupled with extended drought, unusually high temperatures, poor agricultural practices and the resulting wind erosion all contributed to making the Dust Bowl.

­­The conditions that led to the Dust Bowl began during the early 1920s. A post-World War I recession led farmers to try new mechanized farming techniques to increase profits. Many bought plows and other farming equipment, and between 1925 and 1930, more than 5 million acres (2 million hectares) of previously unfarmed land was plowed [source: Kershner]. With the help of mechanized farming, farmers produced record crops during the 1931 season.


However, the overproduction of wheat, coupled with the Great Depression, led to severely reduced market prices. The wheat market was flooded, and people were too poor to buy. Farmers could not earn back their production costs and expanded their fields to make a profit. They replaced the prairie’s native grassland with wheat and left any unused fields bare.

But plow-based farming in this region cultivated an unexpected yield: The loss of fertile topsoil that literally blew away in the winds, leaving the land vulnerable to drought and inhospitable for growing crops.

Then, in a brutal twist of fate, the rains stopped. By 1932, 14 dust storms, known as black blizzards, were reported; in just one year, the number increased to nearly 40.

­Millions of people fled the region. The federal government enacted aid programs to help, but it wasn't until 1939, when the rain returned, that relief came.


Effects of the Dust Bowl

dust bowl
Three girls modeling various dust bowl masks, which were worn in areas where the dust in the air caused breathing difficulties, circa 1935. Bert Garai/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When the drought hit the Gre­at Plains, roughly one-third of the farmers left their homes and headed to the mild climate of California in search of migrant work. Known as the Okies — the moniker referred to any poor migrant from the Dust Bowl region since only about 20 percent were from Oklahoma — they left behind the parched lands and economic despair.

Many were used to financial stability and home amenities such as indoor plumbing, but had become fin­ancially indebted after purchasing mechanized farming equipment and suffering crop failures. They faced foreclosure on home and farm.


California didn't welcome the influx of Okies. Since the number of migrant workers outnumbered the available jobs, tensions grew between Californians and laborers, and public health concerns rose as California's infrastructure became overtaxed.

The New Deal

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted the first of several mortgage and farming relief acts under the New Deal aimed to reduce foreclosures and keep farms afloat during the drought. But by the end of 1934, roughly 35 million acres (14 million hectares) of farmland were ruined, and the topsoil covering 100 million acres (40 million hectares) had blown away [source: Dyer].

Under the Taylor Grazing Act of 1934, the government reserved 140 million acres (57 million hectares) as protected federal lands. Grazing and planting would be monitored to encourage land rehabilitation and conservation.

Additionally, in the early 1930s, the government launched the Civil Conservation Corps (CCC), one of the most successful New Deal programs. Three million young men volunteered for forestry and conservation work for the CCC. Called Roosevelt's "Forest Army," they planted trees, dug ditches and built reservoirs — work that would contribute to flood control, water conservation and prevent further soil erosion.

Between 1933 and 1935, the government introduced many more programs and agencies to help people affected by the Dust Bowl, including efforts like the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, the Resettlement Administration, the Farm Security Administration, the Land Utilization Program and the Drought Relief Service.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA), a program started under the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act, is one of the best-known New Deal programs. The WPA was a work relief program that employed more than 8.5 million people to build roads, bridges, airports, public parks and buildings.

The Soil Conservation Act of 1935

­­It took millions of tons of dirt and debris blowing from the Plains all the way into Washington D.C., known as "Black Sunday," to move Congress to pass the Soil Conservation Act and establish the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) under the Department of Agriculture.

The SCS (now the Natural Resources Conservation Service) promoted healthy soil management and farming practices and paid farmers to put such methods to work on their farms. The legacy of the Service's practices, such as irrigation, crop diversity and no-till farming, continue in the Plains today.


Another Dust Bowl?

­­The 1930s Dust Bowl didn't inoculate the United States from another such ecological disaster. Over 30 percent of North America is arid or semi-arid land, with about 40 percent of the continental United States (17 Western states) vulnerable to desertification [source: Alexander].

Sustainable agriculture and soil conservation measures could help avoid another dust bowl, but experts aren't sure that such measures will be enough if extended and severe drought revisits the Great Plains.


No-till Farming

Tilling is a method of turning over the top layer of soil to remove weeds and add fertilizers and pesticides. But tilling also allows carbon dioxide, an important soil nutrient, to escape from the topsoil.

No-till is a sustainable farming method that helps nutrients stay put. Organic matter, such as crop residue, remains at the surface — healthy topsoil is fertile and decreases water runoff and erosion.


Dust Bowl FAQ

How did the Dust Bowl start?
The dust bowl was a result of various agricultural and economic factors that brought about changes in the weather in the Southern Plains area of the United States in the 1930s.
Why was the Dust Bowl important?
The drought, winds and dust clouds of the Dust Bowl killed important crops (like wheat), caused ecological harm, and resulted in and exasperated poverty. Prices for crops plummeted below subsistence levels, causing a widespread exodus of farmers and their families out the affected regions.
What were the causes of the Dust Bowl?
The biggest causes for the dust bowl were poverty that led to poor agricultural techniques, extremely high temperatures, long periods of drought and wind erosion. Some people also blame federal land policies as a contributing factor.
How did the Dust Bowl affect the environment?
The Dust Bowl was arguably one of the worst environmental disasters of the 20th century. It degraded soil productivity, reduced air quality, and ravaged the local flora and fauna. The dust storms also caused dust pneumonia among residents who didn’t migrate.
Did living in the Dust Bowl kill you?
People who didn’t leave the affected regions in the ’30s had to deal with “dust pneumonia,” respiratory issues, chest pain and a host of other life-changing health complications.

Lots More Information

­Related Articles

More Great Links

  • "A major Dust Bowl storm strikes." The History Channel. http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history.do?id=4488&action=t­dihArticleCategory
  • "Civilian Conservation Corps Camp Newspapers." The Library of Virginia. http://www.lva.lib.va.us/whatwehave/news/ccc.htm
  • http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/04/080430152030.htm
  • Alexander, Gemma. "Combatting Desertification." Earth 911. July 1, 2020 (April 20, 2022). https://earth911.com/living-well-being/combatting-desertification/
  • "Civilian Conservation Corp. (CCC)." History.com. March 31, 2021 (April 20, 2022). https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/civilian-conservation-corps
  • Colvin, Richard Lee. "Dust Bowl Legacy : 50 Years After ‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ Five Okies Remember How Their Families Struggled During the Great Migration--and Endured" March 26, 1989 (April 20, 2022). Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1989-03-26-tm-677-story.html.
  • "Did Dust Storms Make 1930s Dust Bowl Drought Worse?" ScienceDaily. 2008.
  • "Dust Bowl." Aug. 5, 2020. (April 20, 2022). https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/dust-bowl
  • Fanslow, Robin. "The Migrant Experience." American Folklife Center. The Library of Congress. 1998. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/afctshtml/tsme.html
  • Goffman, Ethan. "Environmental Refuges: How Many, How Bad?" Discovery Guides. CSA. 2006. http://www.csa.com/discoveryguides/refugee/review.php
  • "Great Depression And World War II, 1929-1945. The Dust Bowl." American Memory. The Library of Congress. 2002. http://lcweb2.loc.gov/learn/features/timeline/depwwii/dustbowl/dustbowl.html
  • "Works Progress Administration (WPA)." June 10, 2019 (April 20, 2022). https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/works-progress-administration
  • Kershner, Ellen. World Atlas. "What Was The Dust Bowl?" May 8, 2020 (April 20, 2022). https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/what-was-the-dust-bowl.html
  • Lal, Rattan, Michael Griffin, Jay Apt, Lester Lave and M. Granger Morgan. "No-Till Farming Offers a Quick Fix to Help Ward Off Host of Global Problems." Ohio State University. http://researchnews.osu.edu/archive/notill.htm
  • Library of Congress. "The Dust Bowl." (April 20, 2022). https://www.loc.gov/classroom-materials/united-states-history-primary-source-timeline/great-depression-and-world-war-ii-1929-1945/dust-bowl/
  • Mullins, William H. "Okie Migrations." Oklahoma Historical Society. http://digital.library.okstate.edu/encyclopedia/entries/O/OK008.html
  • "NASA Explains 'Dust Bowl' Drought." Goddard Space Flight Center. National Aeronautics and Space Administration. 2004. http://www.nasa.gov/centers/goddard/news/topstory/2004/0319dustbowl.html
  • Reganold, John P. and David R. Huggins. "No-Till: How Farmers Are Saving the Soil by Parking Their Plows." Scientific American. 2008. http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=no-till
  • Riney-Kehrberg, Pamela. "The Dust Bowl." Center for Agricultural History and Rural Studies. Iowa State University. http://www.history.iastate.edu/agprimer/Page21.html
  • "The 1930s Dust Bowl." AccuWeather. http://www.accuweather.com/promotion.asp?dir=aw&page=dustbowl2
  • "The Dust Bowl." Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. http://www.nasm.si.edu/ceps/drylands//dust.html
  • USDA. "Natural Resources Conservation Service." (April 20, 2022) https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/national/about/history/
  • USDA. "History of USDA's Farm Service Agency." (April 20, 2022) https://www.fsa.usda.gov/about-fsa/history-and-mission/agency-history/index
  • U.S. Legal. com. "Taylor Grazing Act Law and Legal Definition." (April 20, 2022). https://definitions.uslegal.com/t/taylor-grazing-act/