The Dust Bowl and Human Agency

The foggy, rainy, cold, water-logged conditions here in the Midwest bring to mind other summers where the normal growing season hasn’t gone as planned.  Summer should be hot, with average rainfall, so that farmers can once again bring forth a startlingly great harvest from the American land.

Yet history furnishes instances when nature has refused to cooperate, as in the summer without a summer (1816), when a volcanic eruption half a world away filled the atmosphere with so much ash that the sun’s rays couldn’t warm the Earth and crops throughout the United States, northern Europe, and Russia froze.

Other than that, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s furnishes most dramatic instance of agricultural disaster with its attendant suffering.  Readers of The Grapes of Wrath may recall its harrowing beginning, as Steinbeck describes the drought and terrifying and relentless dust storms that drove masses of subsistence farmers in Oklahoma from their land.

That human action caused this “natural” catastrophe is perhaps less known.  The editors of History.com make the case that reckless settlement on the naturally arid prairies of the Lower Plains states created the conditions for the disaster that followed.

In the decades following the Civil War, millions of settlers moved to what would then have been “virgin land” in the region where Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico adjoin.  Many were inexperienced farmers, responding to the lure of free acreage offered under the 1862 Homestead Act.  This federal policy encouraged rapid settlement in the West by allowing any American with a family to acquire up to 160 acres from the Land Office for a small fee.  Even though the West’s tough dry prairies were much less promising than those in the Mississippi River valley, where the soils were highly fertile and received much more rainfall, settlers snapped up the barren acres, impelled by the superstition that “rain follows the plow.”  According to this “now-discredited theory of climatology,” only human cultivation was wanting to turn desert land into “a garden” and increase its rainfall and humidity.

The First World War caused grain shortages, increasing incentives for American farmers to grow more wheat.  Homesteaders zealously tore up millions of square miles of the deep rooted prairie, grasslands that had kept the dry soils of the region in place.  After the end of World War One, grain prices slumped dramatically as peacetime production of wheat resumed around the globe.  Paradoxically, even as wheat prices plummeted, American farmers produced record wheat crops in 1928 and 1931.  By then, the US economy was in the grip of the Great Depression and much of the wheat crop went unsold.  Such were the conditions when a terrible drought came, forcing countless Americans to abandon their homes.

It was the most consequential weather disaster in American history.  For several years, winds swept the dry plains, picking up millions of tons of soil and balling them into fearsome looking “black blizzards,” dark billowing clouds that traveled as far east as the Atlantic Coast.  At the epicenter of the Dust Bowl region, fine particles of brown dust drifted from the sky, settling in heaping dunes, asphyxiating cattle, clogging human lungs, coating leaves.  Only belatedly did the government begin to encourage farmers to plant windbreaks and take other measures to mitigate erosion.  Devastation on such a scale was only partly “natural”; human folly contributed to human suffering in the Dust Bowl era.

 

Images: from this source, and this.

Unseen Fires

Flying west, I looked down on hundreds of miles of gauzy blue haze wreathing the mountains, which in time I recognized as smoke from forest fires.  Down there, something was raging: a cataclysmic process was underway, but from my vantage the details of the drama were lost, and what we classify as “a natural disaster” impressed me mainly as a profound, impersonal phenomenon, caused by forces of an epic scale.  Even after becoming aware that “something was wrong,” my primary response was awe, which, true to Burke’s famous observations on “the sublime,” was tinged with fear—appropriate given the danger and destruction unseen fires were generating below.

These were not the widely publicized forest fires sweeping Southern California, but spontaneous conflagrations in the northern Rockies, obscure fires that didn’t make the national news.  The sight of these unseen fires has stayed with me, supplying a metaphor for the state of the nation in 2017.  Despite the outwardly smooth operation of the federal government, political fires have periodically sprung up here and there, fires which must burn no matter how much Americans want to suppress them, no matter how much we tell ourselves these fires should not be.  These popular outbreaks, periodically rupturing the conventional veneer of the political order, point up a disconnect between our decrepit yet monopolistic party system and what ordinary Americans want and need.  Reckoning with the stunted and demeaning character of much of American life (let alone acknowledging it) is not exactly a priority on Capitol Hill.

Yet Americans’ unfulfilled cravings for respect and incorporation fueled many of the year’s top stories, including such diverse phenomenon as the #MeToo movement and the Charlottesville riots.  Sadly, as our political system becomes ever more consolidated into a national bureaucracy, picking candidates from Washington and funding them with outsider money, the need is ever greater for leadership that originates in and is oriented mainly toward the interests and distinctive character of localities.  Democrats looking for redemption could do worse than recommit themselves to the “reddest” and most woe-begone parts of the nation.  For only with good leadership at the local level will the dangerously divisive character of local culture wane.

Image: Aerial photograph of smoke from an unseen fire
in the Western US, @ 2017 Susan Barsy

The Summer without a Summer

Currier and Ives hand-colored lithograph, "Winter in the Country: A Cold Morning" (1863), courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1872, near the end of his life, New York newspaperman Horace Greeley recalled a summer in his childhood that pushed his family to the brink of want and insolvency.  It was the summer of 1816, when weather abnormalities reached catastrophic levels, producing a summer without summer, the typically warm months instead punctuated with snows and frost.

Greeley recalls waking on June 8th of that year to find an inch of snow blanketing his family’s farm in Amherst, New Hampshire.  Frosts occurred in all the summer months, destroying crops and yielding only a ‘dubious harvest.’

The conditions Greeley described were general throughout the northeastern United States and felt as far south as Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia.  Newspapers and diaries document the freakishly cold weather that rattled Americans, whose lives then depended almost entirely on what farms in their vicinity could produce.  (Importing food from a distance was untenable before the age of rail.)  Though New England was never a great breadbasket, its farms usually produced enough grains and vegetables to support the human population and some livestock farming.

That summer, persistent cold and frosts produced widespread crop failures.  On each morning from June 8 through 10, frosts were reported throughout much of New England, causing the trees’ foliage to blacken.  In July, a powerful Canadian cold front moved in, killing off tender plants such as beans, cucumbers, and squash, and raising the first fearful prospects of famine.  Yet, according to meteorologist Lee Foster, who has analyzed the agricultural impact of the weather that summer, hardy crops such as wheat, rye, and potatoes managed to hang on.

In the middle of August, any prospect of a normal harvest vanished when frost again hit New England and upstate New York.  Violent thunderstorms followed the cold, with still more frost striking around August 20 and 28, killing the corn and effectively ending the growing season.

Those in northern inland regions suffered the most.  Newspapers recorded June snowfalls of 10 inches in Vermont and 7 inches in parts of Maine.  Newly shorn sheep froze to death; fruit was destroyed.  Farmers went about in coats and mittens.  By the end of the summer, domestic animals were starving.  Much of the human population was famished, too.

Throughout the affected areas, livestock were hastily slaughtered, creating a glut that drove down prices, while the price of grains, particularly corn, began skyrocketing.  While families accustomed to subsistence agriculture were rich in tactics for making do in hard times, the poor harvests of 1816 left them in debt and without the cash or seeds needed to get started the next growing season.  The bankruptcies and penury that followed in the wake of “summer that wasn’t” caused widespread land forfeiture and precipitated the first great out-migration of farmers to the virgin Midwest from eastern parts.

Scientific knowledge and understanding were then insufficient to account for the strange weather Americans were seeing, though some conjectured that sunspots or a solar ellipse (both recently observed) were a probable cause.  Well-informed Americans understood, though, that the peculiar meteorological conditions they were experiencing were more than a local phenomenon.  Their newspapers were reporting similarly catastrophic conditions across Europe, where cold and dark weather was producing dire food shortages, including Ireland’s infamous potato famine.

Today, meteorologists attribute the adverse atmospheric conditions of 1816 to a colossal volcanic eruption that occurred the previous year and half a world away.  On April 8, 1815, Mount Tambora, a volcano east of Java in the Dutch East Indies (modern-day Indonesia), began erupting.  According to a new book by William Klingaman and Nicholas Klingaman, the explosion, a hundred times more powerful than the 1980 eruption of Mount St Helens, was the largest volcanic disturbance in the last 2,000 years and the deadliest in recorded time.  Some 12,000 people living near Tambora died at once, with another 70,000 dying from the toxic fallout in Indonesia alone.

Blasts from the volcano, audible 800 miles away, blew 3,000 feet off the mountaintop, spewing millions of tons of ash, dust, and sulfur-dioxide gas into the sky, the lightest particles flying up more than twenty miles.  Within twenty-four hours of the climactic eruption, an impenetrable cloud the size of Australia had formed.  Particles in the stratosphere were slow to disperse, but winds gradually distributed them, reducing the amount of sunlight reaching the earth.  The impact on climate peaked in 1816, when the Northern Hemisphere felt its withering chill.

Americans today worry about global warming, but early Americans had more to fear from the cold.  Mount Tambora’s eruption intensified conditions associated with the “Little Ice Age” that prevailed from around 1400 to 1850, when the sun’s lower output produced harsher winters, shorter summers, and more aridity—conditions that, like today’s weather abnormalities, created unanticipated hazards and human suffering.  As for the future, who can say?  The new global cooling may be just a volcano away.

Image: Hand-colored lithography by Currier and Ives, “Winter in the Country: A Cold Morning” (1863), in the Library of Congress.  To go to the source, click here.