The towering wall of billowing red dust roaring across the blue West Texas sky took Monroe Debusk back more than eight decades to the Dust Bowl years when he was growing up on his family’s cotton farm.
The 90-year-old farmer looked out his window Monday and saw the sky darken as a rare 1.5-mile-tall, 250-mile-long dust cloud stretched across the rain-starved land and blotted out the sun.
“I didn’t do anything – just thought back to the way it used to be,” Debusk said, recalling the massive dust storms that overwhelmed the region in the 1930s. “That’s the way they were.”
Meteorologists say people living on Texas’ parched plains could see more dust storms as a record drought tightens its grip across the Southwest. At least six sandstorms hit Phoenix this summer, with the most powerful striking on July 5 and measuring a mile high. But experts say another Dust Bowl is unlikely thanks to modern irrigation and farming techniques aimed at holding soil in place.
Dust storms form when wind whips up loose soil. They aren’t unusual in West Texas, although the size and speed of Monday’s cloud was rare. Typically, the wall of dirt climbs to only about 1,000 feet in that area, not the 8,000 feet seen with the latest storm, experts said.
The wind picked up with a drop in pressure along the edge of a fast-moving cold front, a pattern that typically happens in the fall and winter, meteorologists said. When the cloud hit Lubbock, winds speeds reached 74 mph in some places and visibility was far less than a quarter of a mile.
The wind knocked down tree limbs, which fell on utility lines, knocking out power in parts of the city of about 210,000 people. Dust lingered in the air afterward, filling people’s ears and nostrils and leaving grit in their teeth. A layer of dirt covered the pavement, cars and anything else left outside.
“The thing that is scary is this exact type of dust storm is the same type of dust storm from during the 30s,” said Tom Gill, a geology professor at the University of Texas-El Paso who has studied dust storms for years.
Burle Pettit, 77, the former editor of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, said the storm was the worst he’d seen since moving to the city in 1960. He didn’t realize the storm was coming and was driving to pick up dinner for himself and his wife when it hit. The dust was so thick he missed the turn for the restaurant “because I couldn’t see the stupid building.”
“I wasn’t scared” while driving, he said. “I was concerned that some idiot would come flying from behind me because you could not see.”
Once he arrived, walking the 10 feet from his car to the entrance was another ordeal. He still couldn’t see anything, and dirt filled his eyes, nose and mouth.
In hindsight, “a wise person would have turned around but I was hungry,” Pettit said, summing up the trip.
Gill believes dust storms could become more common as Texas’ drought continues. The state just finished its driest 12 months ever and was blistered by triple-digit heat until early September. This year is on track to be the driest in Texas history, with the average rainfall in the first nine months about 25 percent less than in the same period in 1956, the previous driest year, when 11.23 inches fell.
Lubbock has had just 3.16 inches of rain since Jan. 1.
“If the drought continues, and if we have powerful cold fronts barreling down the South Plains, I see no reason it couldn’t happen again,” Gill said.
But experts believe an extended period of massive dust storms like those seen in the 1930s remains unlikely. A drought in the 1950s didn’t result in any large dust storms, likely because of advances in agriculture and conservation, they said.
Farmers in eight Great Plains states now irrigate their land with water from the underground Ogallala Aquifer, so even with little rain, the soil has some moisture. Texas farmers also “sandfight” in an effort to keep soil from taking flight. A fine layer of silt forms on top of the ground as it dries out after a heavy rain. To keep it in place, farmers poke small holes in the dirt, creating small mounds, almost like ant hills, that create resistance as wind moves across the surface.
“That’s really all you can do to it because any time you touch it you’re breaking up the existing clod (of dirt),” said Kelly Attebury, a soil scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Loose dirt is more likely to be lifted and carried by the wind.
But two other farming techniques that help limit dust storms aren’t much of an option this year. Typically, farmers leave plants in fields after the harvest to help hold the soil in place. They also plant other crops, called cover crops, after the harvest to give the soil something to hang onto in late fall and winter. This year, there are few plants to leave in fields after farmers abandoned to the drought the cotton that’s one of the region’s major crops. And, there’s been no rain to grow cover crops.
Shawn Wade, a spokesman for a group of cotton producers in the region, said the lack of ground cover could have contributed to Monday’s storm.
“Certainly, it had some impact on the end result,” he said.
There’s also concern that other advances since the Dust Bowl could be in jeopardy. Water in the Ogallala Aquifer has been diminishing for years, causing worry in Kansas, Nebraska and other states that rely on it. And, funding for the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to keep land at high risk of erosion out of production, is in jeopardy as Congress looks to cut costs.
Still, Wade said he doesn’t expect big cuts to the conservation reserve program.
“The program has proven to be very successful in reducing soil erosion throughout the High Plains of Texas and the Great Plains,” he said, “d this week’s happening shows how important these types of programs are when conditions such as the current drought set in.”
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