Why the 1930s Dust Bowl Was So Bad

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The Dust Bowl drought of the 1930s was arguably one of the worst environmental disasters of the 20th century. New computer simulations reveal the whipped-up dust is what made the drought so severe.

Scientists have known that poor land use and natural atmospheric conditions led to the rip-roaring dust storms in the Great Plains in the 1930s. Climate models in the past few years also have revealed the effect of sea surface temperatures on the Dust Bowl.

"What is new and what had not been done before is to work out whether the dust storms from the drought and land use had any impact on the drought," said Richard Seager of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) in New York.

And they did.

"You had dust storms that were unprecedented in the recent historical record," said lead researcher Benjamin Cook of NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. "So it was on the level of dust emissions that nobody in living memory and probably much before that had ever seen."

Using computer simulations, Cook, Seager and Ronald Miller of LDEO found the "black blizzards" exacerbated the drought and pushed it northward into the Great Plains.

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