Are we going to have another Dust Bowl?

Question: As severe drought continues in places like the Texas Panhandle, western Kansas, and California, is the United States in danger of another Dust Bowl?

Answer: We can expect more extreme climate events in coming years, and drought across the southern Great Plains (e.g., Oklahoma, Texas) may become even more prevalent.

A dust storm in Abilene, Texas in 2007. Although local dust storms like this are likely to continue, we should be able to prevent the widespread wind erosion that took place during the 1930s Dust Bowl. Photo by A.J. Smith (

But we’ve learned some lessons since the 1930s Dust Bowl about maintaining plant cover on the soil and the value of erosion control and other conservation practices. So these efforts will reduce the likelihood of widespread wind erosion: i.e., another Dust Bowl.

However, in local areas, there is the chance for wind erosion and dust storms because of the lack of ground cover. A complicating factor is the observation that continuing drought is causing the death of native grasses, which exposes the soil to the wind. In other words, lingering droughts can wreak havoc on our ability to grow the plant cover we need to protect the soil surface.

In summary, we can assume that we won’t allow a repeat of the conditions that caused the first Dust Bowl. However, our changing climate may have a large role to play in what actually happens in the future.

–Answered by Jerry Hatfield, USDA-Agricultural Research Service

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7 thoughts on “Are we going to have another Dust Bowl?

  1. You’ve invited questions, and I wonder if you can help with this one: We live in northeast Texas, in the Post Oak Savannah. Last fall, we mowed our bahia grass, planted a daikon cover, disced, and planted a garden. We got an abundance of wild plants from seed that had been buried beneath the bahia cover. All the garden plants simply failed to thrive. They grew, but not to normal height. They produced, but not much. Do you have comments on what we should do next to amend the soil? Our soil test had shown us low in all minerals but iron, and lime was recommended but not used. We want to build our soil w/o chemicals. Thanks for any response you have… Aggie

    1. Thank you for your question! We will round up an expert to answer it for you and get back to you as soon as we can!

  2. Dear Aggie — There are a few factors to consider.

    Native plants are adapted to the local soil conditions, garden plants may not be. This would explain why they grew better than your garden plants.

    Plants grow in proportion to the most limiting nutrient. If the soil test noted all nutrients but iron were low, one of those nutrients limited plant growth. In general, the nutrients limiting plant growth follow this order: Nitrogen > Phosphorus > Potassium, followed by others, depending upon soil characteristics.

    The primary influence of soil pH on plant growth is nutrient availability. You did not specify the pH, but noted that lime was recommended after the soil test. If the pH is less than 5.5, some elements even become toxic to some plants.

    A description of the plants helps a soil scientist diagnose the potential limiting nutrients. I suspect that your plants were not only stunted, but also showing signs of chlorosis, leaves that were pale green to yellow. Sometimes the yellow and green show up in patterns on the leaves. Sometimes lower leaves are affected first; other times new leaves are affected first. Some nutrient deficiencies cause leaves to be purple or to get brown around the edges.

    Plowing in the bahia grass stubble could cause a nitrogen deficiency. The microbes decomposing the residues require nitrogen, and are more effective at finding it than are plant roots. That situation should improve in the next growing season.

    You express a desire to build your soil without using chemicals.
    First, lime the soil as recommended. Lime is a naturally-occurring mineral, usually made of crushed or ground limestone rock. Lime will raise the pH which will improve the availability of some nutrients.

    Nitrogen is the most difficult nutrient to provide without using chemical fertilizers, though there are some methods available to you. Apply manure or a mature compost (if you can still recognize tree parts, do not use it). These materials provide nitrogen, phosphorus, and other nutrients, but also increase soil organic matter. Increasing organic matter has beneficial effects on soil physical, chemical, and biological properties, and on water relations.

    If winter precipitation is sufficient, plant a cool-season legume instead of daikon. Legumes such as clovers or peas return more nitrogen to the soil than they use.

    Get in touch with someone from Texas AgriLife Extension or from a Master Gardeners group in the area. They will have experience in working with soils and gardens in your area.

    If you follow some of these suggestions, you may have a better crop next year.

    –Clay Robinson, a.k.a. Dr. Dirt

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