Is there another Dust Bowl on the way? Maps of rain and snowfall this winter show a very dry region in southwestern Iowa, leading to speculation that a multi-year drought may not be over after all. Mark Svoboda at the National Drought Mitigation Center says he can see the reason for that concern. He says drought specialists are watching two opposing factors, the longterm drought that dates back to 1999 in Nebraska, which is giving way to a little optimism with a heavy snowpack in the Rockies, and then the short-term dryness that came on last fall and has continued throughout the winter, across not only eastern Nebraska but most of Iowa.
Abnormal temperatures on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico have altered the course of a low-level jet stream that usually brings moisture up into the Great Plains. Svoboda isn’t ready to compare this year with the drought that sent clouds of dust across millions of acres from Oklahoma across the prairies. “I guess any given year could be ‘the start’ of a drought year,” Svoboda says. He points out you can go back just to 2002 and find the driest year on record, ever — drier than any single year during the infamous Dust Bowl era. “But that’s just the point, it was one year,” he adds.
It wasn’t part of many years of heat and dryness that would mean a Dust Bowl scenario now. He says that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. But Svoboda says poor farming practices and other factors also contributed to the extent and severity of the Dust Bowl, which displaced three to four-hundred thousand people. He says we’ve taken measures since the 1930s including the creation of the Soil Conservation Service.
Svoboda says people’s good stewardship of the land in general, especially over the last 30-40 years likely would reduce the impact of a large-scale drought. With new technology and crop hybrids he says even a big one would have less effect today.”You do need water,” Svoboda, says, adding there would be some terrible impacts from a longterm drought. But it would change how we think about long-term sustainability across this part of the United States.
He says using paleo-climate data like tree rings and lake sediment levels to tell us what happened before people were around to collect weather data, we do know droughts were part of this region’s normal climate and could last many years. In the winter, Svoboda says this region doesn’t get a lot of its annual precipitation, so what matters now is what happens in the next six to eight weeks.