Parched: A New Dust Bowl Forms in the Heartland -- "Exceptional drought" makes for tough times in Oklahoma.Posted by Jim at Thursday, June 19, 2014
By Laura Parker
16 May 2014
(National Geographic) – In Boise City, Oklahoma, over the catfish special at the Rockin' A Café, the old-timers in this tiny prairie town grouse about billowing dust clouds so thick they forced traffic off the highways and laid down a suffocating layer of topsoil over fields once green with young wheat.
They talk not of the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, but of the duster that rolled through here on April 27, clocked at 62.3 miles per hour.
It was the tenth time this year that Boise City, at the western end of the Oklahoma panhandle, has endured a dust storm with gusts more than 50 miles per hour, part of a breezier weather trend in a region already known for high winds.
"When people ask me if we'll have a Dust Bowl again, I tell them we're having one now," says Millard Fowler, age 101, who lunches most days at the Rockin' A with his 72-year-old son, Gary. Back in 1935, Fowler was a newly married farmer when a blizzard of dirt, known as Black Sunday, swept the High Plains and turned day to night. Some 300,000 tons of dirt blew east on April 14, falling on Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., and, according to writer Timothy Egan in his book The Worst Hard Time, onto ships at sea in the Atlantic.
"It is just as dry now as it was then, maybe even drier," Fowler says. "There are going to be a lot of people out here going broke."
The climatologists who monitor the prairie states say he is right. Four years into a mean, hot drought that shows no sign of relenting, a new Dust Bowl is indeed engulfing the same region that was the geographic heart of the original. The undulating frontier where Kansas, Colorado, and the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma converge is as dry as toast. The National Weather Service, measuring rain over 42 months, reports that parts of all five states have had less rain than what fell during a similar period in the 1930s.
"If you have a long enough period without rain, there will be dust storms and they can be every bit as bad as they were in the Thirties," says Mary Knapp, the Kansas State assistant climatologist.
Cattle are being sold to market because there is not enough grass on rangeland for large herds to graze. Colorado's southeast Baca County is almost devoid of cattle—a change that Nolan Doesken, Colorado's state climatologist, calls "profound and dramatic."
Elsewhere, drifts of sand pile up along fence lines packed with tumbleweeds, and tens of thousands of acres of dry-land wheat have died beneath blankets of silt as fine as sifted flour. In the vocabulary of Plains weather, this is known as a "blowout." Blowouts often start as brown strips along the outer edges of fields, and then spread with each successive blowing wind like a cancer.
"Once your neighbor's fields starts to blow, it puts your own fields at risk," says Gary McManus, Oklahoma's state climatologist, who toured the blown-out wheat fields outside Boise City last week.
McManus, 47, grew up in the panhandle town of Buffalo, where his grandparents gave up farming during the drought of the 1950s and moved to town. He has a special affinity for the panhandle, which he says is often ignored by state officials and is in worse shape as a result of the present drought than any other part of Oklahoma. Part of his job involves traveling Oklahoma's back roads to speak to farm groups. In the past three years, as the drought settled in, he has given 100 talks to farmers, 40 of them about the drought.
"They want to know what's going to happen," he says. "Are we going to get moisture for my wheat? My answer, generally, has been probably not. Unfortunately, I'm right more often than I'm wrong."
The farmers also ask for a long-term forecast, which takes McManus into the politically perilous realm of climate change, a touchy subject in a state where Republican Senator Jim Inhofe is known as one of the leading congressional voices denying global warming and where, as one man put it, what farmers believe depends on "whether they listen to FOX or CNN."
"It's not a subject I like to speak about. It's nerve-wracking," McManus says. "I am often met with skepticism, and I tell them I am just presenting the science."
According to the National Climate Assessment, the government's interagency report detailing the impact of climate change, the science shows that the region is trending toward hotter and drier. The longer the current drought lasts, the harder it will be to recover. A quarter of Oklahoma, including the panhandle, and neighboring counties in Kansas and Texas are rated as being in "exceptional drought," the driest category on the weekly U.S. Drought Monitor—a status so dry that farmers express relief whenever their standing moves incrementally up a notch to "extreme drought."
As of the end of March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture ranked 42 percent of Oklahoma's winter wheat crop as "poor" to "very poor," and categorized almost three-quarters of the state's topsoil as "short" of moisture and 80 percent of the subsoil as "very short" of moisture. [more]