Is Another Dust Bowl in the Works?

October 23, 2011; 3:51 PM ET
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In this image from ABC15.com, a large dust storm rolls across downtown Phoenix, Ariz. Tuesday evening, July 5, 2011. Dust storms could frequent the Southwest, West Texas and the southern Plains this winter, but should not blow away a large amount of topsoil.

A number of sizable dust storms, ongoing drought and intense heat this past summer have many wondering if another Dust Bowl is in the works.

The Dust Bowl Era was a series of drought years spanning the early and middle 1930s, which was made worse by wind storms that blew away a large amount of topsoil on the Great Plains.

The most recent dust storm in Lubbock, Texas, along with other large storms near Tucson, Ariz. in early October and the haboobs in Phoenix during July, to name a few, certainly are signs of the times.

Much of the region has been in the throes of a drought since last fall. Phoenix only receives an average of 8.50 inches of rain per year. However, as dry is the place normally is, only 4.50 inches of rain has fallen since October 1, 2010.

Lubbock has received only about 30 percent of their normal rainfall since Oct. 1, 2010, which is a mere 6 inches or so, compared to a normal of 20.50 inches.


This image taken from the U.S. Drought Monitor, a product of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), shows the extent of extreme (red) and exceptional (dark red) drought areas for the week of October 18, 2011.

The AccuWeather.com and the National Weather Service winter forecast outlooks are not good for the region in terms of rainfall. Both are projecting below-normal precipitation in a nutshell from Arizona eastward to Texas and northward into the southern Plains.

Two rainfall prospects over the next week seem to be drying up before they even arrive.

However, Expert Agricultural Meteorologist Dale Mohler points out that it may not be quite as dry as last winter in the region.

"The indication is that while a La Nina is in the making, it may not be as strong, nor as long lasting, as last year," Mohler said.

That could mean a few attempts at rain for the region. Rain was nearly non-existent in much of the area last winter.

This winter, there will be storms that pass north of the southern Plains and Southwest, which periodically kick up wind and dust. These episodes can lead to brief low visibility for ground travel and will raise the risk of the spread of wildfires.

However, even if these storms bring little or no rain to the region, we should not see the vast expanse of the 1930s dust storms returning.

Moisture will be plentiful over the central and northern Plains this winter. In fact, much of the northern Plains is forecast to have harsh cold, rather than unusual warmth.

Modern agricultural techniques in southern areas such as irrigation and cover crops mitigate the loss of water due to evaporation and the loss of soil due to wind.

"If the La Nina is weaker and of shorter duration than last year, there is a chance of the return of substantial rain next spring in Texas and the southern Plains," Mohler said.

Rainfall during the early and middle 1950s was well below normal in many areas of Texas.

According to AccuWeather.com Forensics, in Lubbock, every year from 1950 through 1955 brought below-normal rainfall and had a cumulative effect.

The current drought and warmth have so far lasted just a little over a year. However, it has been much more intense than during much of the 1950s era with well-below-average rainfall and well-above-average warmth.

There has been one to several inches of rain in recent weeks in a large part of Texas and the southern Plains.

"The rain has come in time for the planting of winter wheat on the southern Plains," Mohler said.


In this Aug. 6, 2011 photo, a wind burst kicks up a fine powder that envelopes cattle looking for food on a private ranch near San Angelo, Texas. Randy Bolf, a fence contractor and rancher, has been leasing the 7,000 acre ranch that straddles Tom Green and Coke counties for 22 years. Bolf said that throughout that time period, it has only been this dry once before. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

"However, the status of pastureland grasses remains poor in Texas and Oklahoma," Mohler added.

Much more rain is needed on a regular basis to green-up the pastureland, begin filling reservoirs, and replenish the water supply.

All it would take is a couple of big, wet storms over winter to get the ball rolling in the right direction.

According to AccuWeather.com Long Range Expert Paul Pastelok, "While anything is possible over the winter, we just do not see a pattern very favorable for the type of rain that is needed in much of the region."

"We cannot say for sure what the next year or next several years will bring," Pastelok added.

While black and white images of mass migration during the 1930s Dust Bowl Era are not likely to be repeated, more hardship for agriculture in the region may be ahead.

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