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Is The US Heading Towards Another Dust Bowl?

Is The US Heading Towards Another Dust Bowl?

26 March 2014

ANALYSIS - There's a mixed bag of weather conditions across the US, with rumours that a new Dust Bowl isn't too unlikely, writes Gemma Hyland.

In Texas, Rick Auckerman, AgriLife Extension agent for Deaf Smith County in the western Panhandle, said wind speeds of 30 to 50 mph bore down on the county for most of the week, and producers were running out of tools to stop soil from blowing away.

Jerry Coplen, AgriLife Extension agent for Knox County, west of Wichita Falls, noted cotton producers were trying to prepare planting beds in between dust storms.

Dr. Kevin Appel, a Panhandle optometrist, took this photo of a dust storm blowing in from the west near Canyon on March 18. (Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo courtesy of Dr. Kevin Appel)
Dr. Kevin Appel, a Panhandle optometrist, took this photo of a dust storm blowing in from the west near Canyon on March 18.
(Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service photo courtesy of Dr. Kevin Appel)

Dr Nielsen-Gammon said: “Over the past few weeks, the dust seems to be mainly picked up from southeastern Colorado and eastern New Mexico, so we’re not having a problem with widespread soil loss in Texas so far, but it’s something that could happen if conditions don’t allow for spring green-up, which they haven’t yet.”

Auckerman noted that though it may feel like a return of the Dust Bowl days as fences are being covered up by sand and dirt in Deaf Smith County, modern producers have a lot more tools to fight blows, including U.S. Department of Agriculture Conservation Reserve Program grassland.

But on much of regular farmland, there isn’t a lot of growth to hold the dirt in place, Auckerman said.

There hasn’t been green-up of grasses because December through February have been the tenth driest on record in the last ten years, Nielsen-Gammon said. And March doesn’t seem be turning that trend around.

“The last time it was drier (the first quarter of the year) was in 1996, which was the start of this string of droughts that we’ve been having,” he said.

The other issue that continues to hover critically on the horizon is a possible battle between towns and agriculture over extremely limited reservoir levels, Nielsen-Gammon said.

“Reservoir levels are lower this time of year than they have been previously during this drought,” he said. “If we don’t see summer months of more than average rainfall, we will likely see conflicts between agricultural and municipal/industrial uses.”

On a good news note, the Southern and Southeastern parts of the state are doing much better, he said. And parts of West Texas have gotten some decent rains during the past year.

“But most of the Panhandle has averaged less than 50 percent of normal for the last three years,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

Contrasts in weather

In contrast the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Spring Outlook, shows rivers in half of the continental US are at minor or moderate risk of exceeding flood levels this spring. 

The highest threat of flooding comes in the southern Great Lakes region due to above-average snow pack and a deep layer of frozen ground. Drought is expected to continue in California and the Southwest.

The continuation of winter weather, above-average snowpack, frozen ground and thick ice coverage on streams and rivers will delay spring flooding into April in the upper Midwest eastward to New England.

The intensity of the flooding will depend on the rate of snow and ice melt, and future rainfall.

Continued well-below average temperatures this winter resulted in significant river ice formation and ice jams in locations further south than customary, flooding homes and businesses, and impacting river commerce.

There is also an elevated risk of more ice jams this spring in the northern tier of the US from Montana eastward to northern New England.

Drought Outlook

Significant and widespread drought conditions continue in California which experienced its warmest and third driest winter on record. Drought is expected to persist or intensify in California, Nevada, most of interior Oregon and Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, southeast Colorado, western Oklahoma, and most of west Texas because of below-average rain or snow this winter and the onset of the dry season in April.

If the drought persists as predicted in the West and Southwest, it will likely result in an active wildfire season, continued stress on crops and livestock due to low water levels, and an expansion of water conservation measures. Drought removal expected for the Big Island of Hawaii.

Drought improvement is likely in Washington, southeast Idaho, extreme northern and coastal Oregon, western and central sections of Nebraska and Kansas, central Oklahoma, and the Midwest. Drought is not expected east of the Mississippi River during the next three months.

More information about drought can be found at, a clearinghouse of drought-related materials managed by NOAA including maps, tools, and information to help prepare for and mitigate the effects of drought.

To read more of NOAA's Spring Outlook, click here

Gemma Hyland, Editor

Gemma Hyland, Editor

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