A powerful wind strips the topsoil from desiccated farmlands in South Dakota, one of a series of disastrous windstorms that year. The drought-ridden land of the Southern Plains became known as the Dust Bowl; it was useless to farmers, and only exacerbated the economic problems of the Great Depression. Within two days, dust from the South Dakota storm had reached all the way to Albany, New York.
Dust storms plagued the West throughout the 1930s and eventually the devastated area covered nearly 100 million acres. Rising like ominous black clouds on the horizon, the dust storms destroyed crops, choked livestock to death, and damaged human health. During 1938, the worst year of the dust storms, it is estimated that 850 million tons of topsoil disappeared with the winds. The size and scope of the problem have led some historians to call the Dust Bowl the worst environmental disaster in American history.
The cause of the Dust Bowl is still unclear. Widespread drought-which killed crops and turned the topsoil into a light powder-was undoubtedly a factor. However, some have argued that the farmers played their part by replacing native grasses with wheat and less hardy crops.
Whatever the causes, the Roosevelt administration responded to the Dust Bowl with a billion- dollar program to aid and educate farmers in soil conservation techniques that have become standard practice. After the rains returned in 1941, the region bloomed once again. Severe droughts have occurred since, but none have been as devastating as the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s.