Weather experts predicting return to Dust Bowl days

Some of you might be old enough to remember the days of the “Dust Bowl.” That time — during the 1930s — when up to 70 percent of the country was parched, and dust clouds would blot out the sun for days at a time.

Others, like myself, know of the great drought only through sepia-toned photographs and classic novels, like John Steinbeck's “The Grapes of Wrath.” But if the experts are right, the “Dust Bowl” days could be making a comeback.

Most farmers in the lower Southeast don't have to be reminded that drought has been the norm in the region during the past three to four years. Since May of 1998, when Georgia's drought first began, the rainfall shortage stands at about 50 inches — the equivalent of a year's worth of precipitation.

And, for the second consecutive year, farmers in southwest Georgia's Flint River basin are being paid not to irrigate about 40,000 acres of land, in an attempt by the state government to keep water flowing in the Flint River.

Drought, in fact, currently is engulfing the entire East Coast, with rivers and streams from Maine to Florida setting records for low flow. Thousands of wells also have run dry, as once-plentiful underground aquifers show the stress of demand outstripping supply.

And the miseries of drought are being felt beyond the East Coast. North-central Montana is in its sixth year of drought, posting the lowest winter wheat production since 1940. In Kansas, farmers have been trucking in water or selling off cattle. Wyoming officials are considering seeding clouds with silver iodide to produce badly needed rain in the face of a dry spell that has lasted for more than three years.

It's estimated that drought currently covers about one-third of the United States. And, while recent rains in many parts of the nation have helped, weather forecasters say the dryness will worsen in the coming months because melting snowfall and early spring rains aren't replenishing water supplies.

“This is a sleeping giant. The impact is still to come,” says Mark Svoboda of the National Drought Mitigation Center in Lincoln, Neb. “We're probably looking at conditions that are commensurate with those in 1930,” adds Harry Lins, a drought scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, which monitors national water levels.

Droughts are natural occurrences and not uncommon in the United States. But the current drought, say the experts, is unusual in that it has lasted so long and covers an unusually broad area. The 1930s “Dust Bowl” drought lasted up to seven years in some areas of the Great Plains. It was so severe and widespread that it caused a mass migration from the Plains states to the West Coast, as people searched for work and better living conditions.

Some scientists — basing their findings on tree ring analysis, ancient soils and other evidence — say we can expect droughts of a similar magnitude in the future. Big, damaging droughts are inevitable, they say, and the only question is when they will come.

Several factors converged to cause the drought now gripping about 30 percent of the nation, according to the experts. La Nina, a cooling of Pacific Ocean surface waters, is blamed for the Southeast's recent warm, dry winters and the northern Rocky Mountain states' warm, dry summers. Also, a northward shift by the jet stream steered winter storms from their normal paths, and a persistent high pressure in the East locked out storms.

When might those of us in the Southeast expect some relief? Not before early next year, says Pam Knox, Georgia's assistant state climatologist. This relief could come in the form of El Nino — an abnormal warming of ocean waters and the opposite of La Nina. An El Nino, which occurs every four to five years and can last 12 to 18 months, is believed to be developing in the Pacific.

No one really knows, says Knox, how much relief might be provided by the weather phenomenon. El Nino tends to bring heavy rains and snowfall to the East Coast and Gulf Coast states in the winter. But it could prolong the drought in some areas. Its side effects include a drier-than-normal rainy season in the Southwest and warmer weather in the Pacific Northwest.

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