Drought of 2012 conjures up Dust Bowl memories, raises questions for tomorrow

A farmer and sons walk in the face of a dust storm in Cimarron County, Oklahoma, in April 1936.

Story highlights

  • Millions were affected and thousands were killed in the 1930s' Dust Bowl era
  • Experts say we're a long way from a Dust Bowl repeat, but note major challenges
  • New tools and techniques have made it easier for farmers to adapt, with limits
  • As one climatologist specilizing in drought mitigation says, "Mother Nature holds all the cards"
Some 3.5 million people fled their homes in Oklahoma, Texas, and elsewhere, the bone-dry landscape, blistering heat and choking dust storms unfit for growing and raising the crops and cattle they relied on to survive.
Thousands more, many of them children and seniors, could not escape, killed by an infection dubbed "dust pneumonia" and other illnesses tied not just to the extreme weather and poor living conditions but to massive, fast-moving dust clouds.
Those clouds and barren terrain across much of middle America gave this period of despair its name: the Dust Bowl.
There were suicides, there were bankruptcies, there were people scrapping for whatever they could find to live. And these were not overnight horror stories: They were repeated day after day and year after year, at a time when much of the United States and world was already debilitated by the Great Depression.
"If you can imagine what's happening now and multiply it by a factor of four or five, that's what it was like," said Bill Ganzel, a Nebraska-based media producer who interviewed survivors of the 1930s' environmental and economic disaster and penned a book, "Dust Bowl Descent." "And it lasted for the entire decade."
Nothing in U.S. history can compare to that calamity of eight decades ago, including the historic drought now gripping much of the country.
That doesn't mean, though, there isn't considerable suffering and devastation now in most of the United States. Or that dire conditions could well persist for several years, as they did during the 1930s -- compounding negative impacts of drought, thus ruining even more livelihoods and lives despite technological and agricultural advancements of recent years.
"Mother Nature holds all the cards," said Mark Svoboda, a climatologist with the National Drought Mitigation Center. "You roll the dice ... every year. Nothing will make you quote-unquote drought-proof."
 Florence Thompson, right, and her children were featured in Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother" photo.
This year, Hurricane Isaac helped alleviate the current drought in some locales, but not in most, and certainly nowhere near enough to put a big dent in a phenomenon that's affected millions.
Is it happening again?
Over 63% of the contiguous United States in early September was suffering moderate to exceptional drought, nearly twice the land affected a year ago, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. Using July data, the National Climatic Data Center reported that America is in the midst of its most expansive drought since December 1956.
The combination of dry conditions and extreme heat -- including hundreds of record-breaking temperatures this summer -- has been unbearable for many. The drought's impact has been seen in ways big and small, from leaves falling early and lawns turning brown to farmers giving up and lakes drying up, exposing hundreds of dead fish.
"It does look like a moonscape," Svoboda said of parts of western Oklahoma, where dirt drifts into mounds and soil climbs over fence posts. "There are some parts of the country where (dire farming conditions) have nothing to do with them failing to till over the soil," as was commonly blamed for "dust storms" of the 1930s.