Worst Environmental Disaster in the United States?

South of Lamar, Colorado, a large dust cloud appears behind a truck traveling on highway 59, May 1936
South of Lamar, Colorado, a large dust cloud appears behind a truck traveling on highway 59, May 1936. PhotoQuest/Archive Photos/Getty Images

Many accidents and events have done serious environmental damage in the United States, but have you ever wondered which was the worst?

If you guessed the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, the 2008 coal ash spill in Tennessee or the Love Canal toxic dump disaster that came to light in the 1970s, you're decades too late in every case.

Scientists and historians generally agree that the Dust Bowl—created by the drought, erosion and dust storms, or "black blizzards," of the so-called Dirty Thirties—was the worst and most prolonged environmental disaster in American history.

The dust storms started at about the same time that the Great Depression really began to grip the country, and continued to sweep across the Southern Plains—western Kansas, eastern Colorado and New Mexico, and the panhandle regions of Texas and Oklahoma—until the late 1930s. In some areas, the storms didn't relent until 1940.

Decades later, the land is still not completely restored, once thriving farms are still abandoned, and new dangers are again putting the Great Plains environment in serious jeopardy.

Causes and Effects of the Dust Bowl

In the summer of 1931, the rain stopped coming and a drought that would last for most of the decade descended on the region. Crops withered and died. Farmers who had plowed under the native prairie grass that held the soil in place saw tons of topsoil, which had taken thousands of years to accumulate, rise into the air and blow away in minutes.

On the Southern Plains, the sky turned lethal.

Livestock went blind and suffocated, their stomachs full of fine sand. Farmers, unable to see through the blowing sand, tied themselves to guide ropes to go from the house to the barn. Families wore respiratory masks handed out by Red Cross workers, cleaned their homes each morning with shovels as well as brooms, and draped wet sheets over doors and windows to help filter the dust.

Still, children and adults inhaled sand, coughed up dirt, and died of a new epidemic called "dust pneumonia."

Frequency and Severity of the Dust Bowl Storms

And the weather got worse long before it got better. In 1932, the weather bureau reported 14 dust storms. In 1933, the number of dust storms climbed to 38, nearly three times as many as the year before.

At its worst, the Dust Bowl covered about 100 million acres in the Southern Plains, an area roughly the size of Pennsylvania. Dust storms also swept across the northern prairies of the United States and Canada, but the damage there couldn't compare to the devastation farther south.

Some of the worst storms blanketed the nation with dust from the Great Plains. One storm in May 1934 deposited 12 million tons of dust in Chicago and dropped layers of fine, brown dust on the streets and parks and rooftops of New York and Washington, DC. Even ships at sea, 300 miles off the Atlantic coast, were coated with dust.

Black Sunday in the Dust Bowl

The worst dust storm of all hit on April 14, 1935—Black Sunday. Tim Egan, a New York Times reporter and best-selling author, wrote a book about the Dust Bowl years called, "The Worst Hard Time," which won the National Book Award.

Here's how he described Black Sunday:

"The storm carried twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the Panama Canal. The canal took seven years to dig; the storm lasted a single afternoon. More than 300,000 tons of Great Plains topsoil was airborne that day."

Disaster Gives Way to Hope

More than a quarter million people fled the Dust Bowl during the 1930s—environmental refugees who no longer had either a reason or the courage to stay—but three times that number remained on the land and continued to battle the dust and to search the sky for signs of rain.

In 1936, the people of the Dust Bowl saw the first glimmer of hope. Hugh Bennett, an agricultural expert, persuaded Congress to finance a federal program to pay farmers to use new farming techniques that would conserve topsoil and gradually restore the land.

By 1937, the Soil Conservation was operating and by the following year, soil loss had been reduced by 65 percent. Still, the drought continued until, finally, in the autumn of 1939 the rains returned to the parched and damaged prairie.

In his epilogue to "The Worst Hard Time," Egan writes:

"The high plains never fully recovered from the Dust Bowl. The land came through the 1930s deeply scarred and forever changed, but in places, it healed. . . After more than sixty-five years, some of the land is still sterile and drifting. But in the heart of the old Dust Bowl now are three national grasslands run by the Forest Service. The land is green in the spring and burns in the summer, as it did in the past, and antelope come through and graze, wandering among replanted buffalo grass and the old footings of farmsteads long abandoned. "

Looking Ahead: Present and Future Dangers

But there are new dangers stalking the Southern Plains. Agribusiness is draining the Ogallala Aquifer—the United States' largest source of groundwater, which stretches from South Dakota to Texas and supplies about 30 percent of the nation's irrigation water—and pumping water from the aquifer eight times faster than rain and other natural forces can refill it.

The aquifer is losing approximately 1.1 million acre-feet per day, the equivalent of a million acres of land covered by a foot of water. At the current rate, the aquifer will be completely dry within a century.

Ironically, the Ogallala Aquifer is not being depleted to feed American families or to support the kind of small farmers who hung on through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl years.

Instead, the agricultural subsidies that began as part of the New Deal to help farm families stay on the land are now paid to corporate farms that grow crops we no longer need. As an example, water drawn from the Ogallala Aquifer is helping Texas farmers grow bumper crops of cotton, but there is no longer a U.S. market for cotton. So cotton growers in Texas receive $3 billion a year in federal subsidies, taxpayer money, to grow fiber that is shipped to China and made into cheap clothing that is sold in American stores.

If the water runs out, we won't have the cotton or the inexpensive clothing, and the Great Plains will be the site of yet another environmental disaster.

Edited by Frederic Beaudry

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
West, Larry. "Worst Environmental Disaster in the United States?" ThoughtCo, Jul. 24, 2017, thoughtco.com/worst-us-environmental-disasters-1203696. West, Larry. (2017, July 24). Worst Environmental Disaster in the United States? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/worst-us-environmental-disasters-1203696 West, Larry. "Worst Environmental Disaster in the United States?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/worst-us-environmental-disasters-1203696 (accessed March 23, 2018).