We’re barreling towards another Dust Bowl

By Erin Blakemore
19 August 2019

We have to fight fast to keep our soil from slipping away.

Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas in 1935.NOAA George E. Marsh Album

In 1935, the Dust Bowl came to Washington—and if we don’t change our ways, it could come back. A new report from the UN climate committee warns that much of the world risks the kind of land degradation that turned fertile farmland into desert during the 1930s. Luckily, this desolate stretch of history doesn’t just serve as a warning. It also provides potential solutions.

The District of Columbia was an unlikely place for a dust storm. Though the Midwest had been shrouded in clouds of dust since 1932, the lawmakers discussing the Dust Bowl in March 1935 were more than 1,000 miles away from the disaster. Then, something uncanny happened: As lawmakers deliberated the very issue of how to stem a series of droughts and the erosion and catastrophic dust storms that followed, a literal cloud fell on the city. Soon, the capital’s familiar marble monuments were covered in a layer of reddish dust. “A clay-colored veil hung before the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Capitol and the Library of Congress,” a reporter observed. That scenario may come to mind when you read the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s new Climate Change and Land Report, which details the ways humans have stripped the planet and calls for sustainable land management practices, many of which were developed in the wake of the Dirty Thirties.

If we continue to use land the way we do now, the report concludes, our species faces a grim future indeed. Humans directly affect more than 70 percent of Earth’s terrain, and it shows: Population growth, farming, and other land use have taken their toll, fueling rapid shifts in climate and threatening Earth’s ability to sustain both humans and itself. Land can only absorb 29 percent of humans’ total CO2 emissions per year. And desertification—the same kind of land degradation that caused dust to fly during the 1930s—further threatens Earth’s climate.


Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.