If there’s anything that just about sums up the desperation of the Great Depression in one filthy package, it’s photos of the Dust Bowl, when over-farming resulted in roving dust storms choking large swathes of the Great Plains region in the US and Canada. Now, scientists are projecting that climate change could bring those hardscrabble days to a dystopian landscape near you.
A dust storm in April 1935 about to give Stratford, Texas a very bad day. Photo Courtesy NOAA
In a study published on July 17 in the journal Scientific Reports, researchers at Princeton University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory used satellite data from 2003-2015 to resolve some of the lingering uncertainty on prior dust activity models. Their research projects that “climate change will increase dust activity in the southern Great Plains from spring to fall in the late half of the twenty-first century — largely due to reduced precipitation, enhanced land surface bareness, and increased surface wind speed”.
In other words, deforestation and the mega-droughts which are increasingly becoming a feature of our changing climate are likely to create conditions ideal for the return of massive dust storms. On the flip side, the researchers projected a decrease in dust activity in the northern Great Plains during the spring due to “increased precipitation and reduced bareness”.
Exposure to the dust itself is, obviously, very unpleasant, but is also linked to a wide variety of respiratory and other ailments, including the possibility of potentially deadly pathogens and agricultural chemicals such as fertiliser and pesticide hitchhiking on the storms.
The original Dust Bowl accelerated the flight of hundreds of thousands of people from 19 states in the region; the storms were so bad cattle and residents choked from “dust pneumonia”, residents were forced to dust-proof homes, and static electricity stalled cars and charged random metal objects.
Though the researchers noted the original Dust Bowl was caused in large part by rapid agricultural development of the Great Plains region combined with “improper” farming techniques such as lack of irrigation or use of “dust mulch”, they wrote the “influences of land use on future dust emission are minor compared to climate change”.
The new data is merely preliminary, according to Princeton researcher Bing Pu, but it lays the groundwork for the climate community to gauge the level of the threat.
“Few existing climate models have captured the magnitude and variability of dust across North America,” Pu said in a statement on Princeton’s website. “…This is an early attempt to project future changes in dust activity in parts of the United States caused by increasing greenhouse gases. Our specific projections may provide an early warning on erosion control, and help improve risk management and resource planning.”