Agriculture

US 2020 Election: Research suggests that dust levels are rising in the Great Plains

The Great Plains seen near Lincoln in Nebraska, US. Photo credit: Blamfoto – Flickr, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia.

By Anders Lorenzen

Just weeks before Americans go to the polls to elect the 46th President of the US and a new Congress, a group of researchers from the University of Utah are warning that a combination of climate change and how land is farmed could produce catastrophic impacts. Dust levels in the Great Plains prompting worrying signs of a repeat of the 1930’s Dust Bowl event which had devastating impacts for food production. Farming practises are also being blamed due them exposing more soil to wind erosion

Andy Lambert, lead author of the study said: “We can’t make changes to the earth surface without some kind of consequence just as we can’t burn fossil fuels without consequences. So while the agriculture industry is absolutely important, we need to think more carefully about where and how we plant.”

The Dust Bowl

The 1930s Dust Bowl occurred when a drought blanketed the Great Plains, from Mexico to Canada. What made it a big deal was that in the 1920s Midwestern farmers had converted vast tracts of grassland into farmland using mechanical ploughs. When the crops failed in the drought, the open areas of land that used to be covered by grass, which held soil tightly in place,  became bare dirt, vulnerable to wind erosion.

Lambert explains that the 1930’s dust storms removed nutrients from the soil making it more difficult for crops to grow and more likely for wind erosion to occur. This scenario lasted for several years bringing hardship before the rain finally began to fall and bring an end to the Dust Bowl. But Lambert added that the damage was already done to the soil with some areas still to recover today.

Same mistakes

In the 2000s, due to the growth in demand for biofuels, the scenario of the 1920s was repeated as the expansion replaced stable grasslands with vulnerable soil. 530,000 hectares of grassland in five Midwestern states became farmland. And literally in a perfect storm at the same time, the Great Plains experienced longer and more severe droughts. It is still unknown how the future of drought in the Great Plains will play out but there are worries of a desertification scenario in the region, especially as the planet continues to heat up. 

The study

The study carried out by the University of Utah set out to determine how much the amount of dust in the atmosphere over the Great Plains had changed in recent decades. They found that from 1988 to 2018 dust increased in the atmosphere over the whole of the Great Plains by as much as 5% per year. Additionally, they found correlations between dust in the atmosphere and crop timings. For instance, In Iowa, where soybeans have been a major expanding crop, increases in dust appeared in June and October—planting and harvesting months, respectively, for soybeans. In the southern Great Plains states, where corn is a more dominant crop, dust increases appeared in March and October—again correlating to corn planting and harvesting seasons.

As to whether we are seeing the beginnings of a second Dust Bowl Lambert said: “I think it’s fair to say that what’s happening with dust trends in the Midwest and the Great Plains is an indicator that the threat is real if cropland expansion continues to occur at this rate and drought risk does increase because of climate change, those would be the ingredients for another Dust Bowl.” 

The research stated that the agricultural community needs to adapt to a changing climate and we need to think about the impacts of land degradation as the climate warms, and it might be a case of what we did in the past we can’t necessarily do in the future.

Donald Trump, who is running for another term as US President and Joni Ernst, current Iowa Senator also running for another term both reject the scientific consensus on human-induced climate change. 

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