Grapes of Wrath Turns 75: The Dust Bowl Then, and Conditions Now

· Apr. 10, 2014, 8:51 pm
Prowers County, Colorado. Dust storm circa 1935 Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [LC-USF343-001617-ZE] / Library of Congress
Prowers County, Colorado. Dust storm circa 1935
John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath turns 75 on Monday. This cover is from the 1987 Penguin paperback edition.
John Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath turns 75 on Monday. This cover is from the 1987 Penguin paperback edition.

John Steinbeck’s classic the Grapes of Wrath turns 75 on Monday.  The novel takes place during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, and follows the Joad family as they leave Oklahoma and head to California.  Portions of Colorado were also a part of the Dust Bowl, and certainly the state is no stranger to blowing dust.  KRCC's Andrea Chalfin recently sat down with Tom Magnuson of the National Weather Service in Pueblo to talk about the meteorological perspective of the Dust Bowl, and how it compares to conditions today.  He begins by talking about what was going on from the perspective of the weather.

MAGNUSON: First of all, we have to put it in the grand perspective.  Back in the 20th Century, in the Colorado area and in the Dust Bowl area, there were at least five droughts.  So this was one of the droughts that occurred in the 20th Century, but it was by far the worst drought which occurred.  So, the grand weather pattern, we talk about global weather patterns, and during that decade in the 1930s, the main theme was it was much drier than normal.  For instance, in parts of Colorado, there was one-third the amount of precipitation during that whole decade than they had gotten the decade before.  So it was a very dry period all in all, and it was the worst drought of the 20th Century as far as the duration of the drought and the impacts that it had.

KRCC:  In perspective, some of the numbers that we were seeing in terms of total rainfall, total moisture in the drought that we’ve just been in are actually lower amounts than what were going on in the Dust Bowl days.

MAGNUSON: Right, in some cases back in the early 2000s, especially in 2002-2003, we had in many places in Southern Colorado, we had rainfall amounts all time record lows for the year.  So that was a phenomenal drought back in 2002-2003.  The difference between the 1930s and the early 2000s was, the drought was not as widespread in the 2000s as it was in the 1930s.  Back in 1934, for example, in one month, July, 80% of the nation was in drought.   

Credit Historical Palmer Drought Indices / National Climatic Data Center:

Back in the early 2000s, maybe 40-50% was in drought, and that has wavered throughout the last decade, anywhere from 8% in drought, all the way up to 65% in drought.  So it’s been much more variable over the last decade or so. 

Credit Historical Palmer Drought Indices / National Climatic Data Center:

KRCC:  Between the 1930s and now, there’s certainly been changes in the agricultural and ecological practices and conditions, and yet, dust still blows.  So put this year, where I feel like I constantly see blowing dust advisories, put this year into perspective.

MAGNUSON: Right.  You know with all the different farming improvements that we’ve had over the decades, I mean, back in the 1930s, basically they plowed up the native grass, and they planted crops, they didn’t rotate crops, they didn’t let their fields lay fallow for years, they just plowed them over and over and over again, they didn’t have cover crops; once you get something like that going, once you get a drought going, once you get a cycle going, it tends to feed on itself.  That’s what happened in the ‘30s. 

The drought that we had in the first decade of the 21st Century was not as widespread as that one, but in portions of Colorado, it was an exceptional drought.  And I think we can be thankful that with new farming practices that we now have where we do know how to manage farmland and soil and provide cover and provide crops and grasses so that the dust doesn’t blow around, it’s not nearly as severe, the dust that we’ve seen in the last few years, as we saw back in the 1930s. 

Current drought conditions across the country.Credit U.S. Drought Monitor:
Current drought conditions across the country.

Now there are certain parts of Southern Colorado and other parts of Colorado where they’re not doing farming, it’s just laid the soil bare because of the drought, and now there is loose soil and it does blow around and we have seen quite a bit of that dust lofted thousands of feet up in the air here in Southern Colorado over the last few years, which does really kind of harken back to the Dust Bowl when you see this big wall of dust coming at you.

KRCC:  So what kinds of conditions then lead you, in this springtime for example, to issue a dust advisory or a blowing dust warning?

MAGNUSON: Specifically for our area in Southeast Colorado, we have learned over the last couple of years those areas where the soil is loose, and we know where those areas are and we made a conscious decision when we saw some of those large dust storms brewing and then passing, that we were going to have to begin issuing blowing dust advisories and dust storm warnings again for the area which is something we haven’t done for a long time, many many decades.  So there is a not nearly as great a concern as there was back in the 1930s, and not as wide an extent in blowing dust as there was back then, but we’ve seen some areas where there is blowing dust in Southern Colorado, so we feel it necessary to issue these warnings.  Not only from a health perspective, but also it’s hard to see in dust.  You’re driving along, and it’s a hazard, and so it’s something we have to tell people about now, but not nearly as bad as it was many many years ago. 

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