In an early trailer for this fall’s sci-fi film, Interstellar, (see related posts) there’s a clip from the 1930s “Dust Bowl.” The grainy black & white images — they last just a second or two — forecast a key part of the film’s story: that because of some environmental calamity Earth has run out of food. Astronauts voyage to another planet to find a new home for humanity.

PhotoThe Dust Bowl, of course, refers to the vast territory in the U.S. that was hammered by a drought that began in 1934 and lasted a decade. Much of the nation’s bread basket collapsed, as apocalyptic dust storms suffocated croplands and as many as 2.5 million people left the Plains States in a mass exodus — 200,000 of them to California alone.

Most people today learn about this cataclysmic period through public broadcasting documentaries and through American history high school textbooks. But with severe and persistent drought gripping the American West today, a lot of people are looking back at the Dust Bowl with worry.

Now, a new study from NASA and the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, “The Worst North American Drought Year of the Last Millennium: 1934” suggests that the same atmospheric pattern seen in 1933-34 — a high-pressure ridge over the West Coast that deflected storms away from the region — is at play now. The persistent ridge has preceded other West Coast droughts, including a two-year one in California that began in 1976 — one of the worst in the state’s history.

At least so far, it’s not 1934 all over again

The current drought, now in its third year, has cost California $2.2 billion this year. A report this summer on the drought from the University of California, Davis suggests it will last at least through next year.

PhotoAs bad as things have gotten so far, be grateful this isn’t 1934. That drought afflicted 72 percent of the country. The NASA study also reports that people back then could have unwittingly made the drought worse than it otherwise might have been: Poor agricultural and land management practices likely contributed to severe wind erosion and to the huge dust storms that suppressed the formation of clouds and rain — intensifying drought conditions.

The researchers, who used tree-ring drought records, found that the 1934 drought was the worst one since 1,000 A.D. Dust storms unsurpassed since the Middle Ages transported dust eastward, all the way to the Atlantic. They found that the 1934 drought was 30-percent more severe than the next runner-up in the U.S., one in the year 1580. Also, the 1934 drought impacted about seven times more land area than any other drought in North America between the years 1000 to 2005.

Reasons for hope of no Dust Bowl repeat

There are a few reasons to be hopeful that we’re not headed now toward a repeat.

Today, the Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, has programs in place to help limit erosion from wind and dust storms. So, at least one factor that exacerbated the drought back then could, at least in part, be taken out of the equation.

“They can reduce the chance of a 1934 event occurring again,” said Benjamin Cook, an environmental scientist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City and lead author of the new paper, in a review of the study by the American Geophysical Union.

Even so, more high-wind storms and drought, among other factors, could have contributed to an increase in the number of dust storms seen over the past two decades in the American West, according to a 2013 study by researchers at the University of Colorado.

It’s possible that drought conditions in recent years have fueled bigger haboobs, walls of dust kicked up by approaching storms and strong cold fronts in arid regions. Evening network news programs in recent years have several times shown Phoenix getting clobbered by haboobs, and The Weather Channel reported in March that a front in eastern New Mexico and Texas kicked up “an apparent haboob … across the drought-stricken region.”

Let’s hope that images like these, from a 2012 Daily Mail story on dust storms in Phoenix, don’t become more familiar, and more widespread over coming months and years across the American West.

For more coverage on the NASA/Lamont-Doherty study, see:
1934 Drought Which Led to Dust Bowl Was Worst of the Last Millennium, NASA Finds
1934 Drought in Dust Bowl Days Was Worst in Thousand Years for U.S.: NASA
1934 Dust Bowl Drought Was North America’s Worst in a Millennium
Is California’s drought worse than the Dust Bowl?
Another Dust Bowl? California Drought Resembles Worst in Millennium

Photos: Dust Bowl photos from 1930s period (Source: Wikipedia).

Bruce Lieberman, a long-time journalist, has covered climate change science, policy, and politics for nearly two decades. A newspaper reporter for 20 years, Bruce worked for The San Diego Union-Tribune...