Dust Bowl

The Dust Bowl caused hundreds of thousands of Americans to become homeless and resulted in millions of inhabitants leaving the Great Plains in search of better living conditions elsewhere. It also led to a greater awareness of the negative impact that industry can have on the environment.

Although the precise date of origin of the Dust Bowl is a matter of controversy, the phenomenon began during the early 1930’s, at the height of the Great DepressionGreat Depression. The states that were hardest hit were Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, New Mexico, and Colorado, although the impact of the Dust Bowl could be felt throughout the northern plains.Dust Bowl

Drought began damaging crops in the South and Midwest in 1931, causing some farmers to revert to producing dairy and other products that did not directly rely on soil conditions. Environment;landThe combination of the drought and poorly strategized plowing of fields led to a situation that was ripe for natural disaster. Winds began creating powerful dust storms, the strongest of which occurred between 1933 and 1936. The impact of a few of these storms was actually felt as far northeast as New York City. During this period, the area also saw an increase in other natural phenomena, including tornado activity.

A collage of 1930’s headlines about the Dust Bowl.

(Library of Congress)

The dust storms destroyed crops and caused farms to fail throughout the affected region. Some 2.5 million Americans became economic refugees in their own country, as they packed their few possessions and traveled to other parts of the country in search of a way to support themselves and their families. These refugees became known in the communities to which they moved by the pejorative term “Okies,” referring to the origin of some of them in Oklahoma.

In 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced a tree-planting campaign in the area to minimize soil erosion caused by the winds. The program had some success, but the end of the drought was probably the most important factor in ending the Dust Bowl by 1938. World War II then helped solidify America’s resurgent economy and officially ended the Great Depression.

The Dust Bowl was in part a result of new technology that allowed farmers to plow a greater portion of the land than they had in the past. The technologies resulted in greater loss of soil, because farmers did not take adequate steps to minimize such loss. The destruction of the Dust Bowl resulted in new techniques being developed to decrease soil loss through recycling. These new procedures, combined with the inhabitation of the area, decreased the likelihood of similar disasters in the future.

Further Reading

  • Egan, Timothy. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl. Boston: Mariner Books, 2006.
  • Levey, Richard, and Daniel Franck. Dust Bowl! The 1930’s Black Blizzards. New York: Bearport, 2005.
  • Worster, Donald. Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930’s. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2004.


Dairy industry

Farm labor

Farm protests

Great Depression

Internal migration

Literary works with business themes