Are we Dust Bowl, 1957, 1976, 1988 dry and hot?

KELOLAND.com Original

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — This already feels like some dry years in South Dakota, southwestern Minnesota and northwestern Iowa’s past.

“Off the top of my head it reminds of August 2012, the early 2000s, the late 1980s, the mid-1950s and early 1930s,” said Dr. Darren Clabo, South Dakota’s State Fire Marshal Meteorologist.

As of June 23, 97.7% of South Dakota is abnormally dry. All of Minnesota is abnormally dry and 94.6% of Iowa is abnormally dry. The percentages are provide by the National Integrated Drought Information System Partners in the drought monitor are the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“People in northwest Iowa ready to have a little more rain, I can guarantee you that,” said Elwynn Taylor, an Iowa State University climatologist emeritus. 

Determining a drought takes multiple factors often including record heat and lack of precipitation.

“Droughts typically occur slowly, over a multi-year period, and it is often not obvious or easy to quantify when a drought begins and ends,” said South Dakota’s 2015 state drought mitigation plan.

“So far, in historical terms, our current dryness isn’t too bad and really, nor is the heat,” Clabo said. “But the combination of the two are really created some tough conditions across the state ranging from ag-related issued to enhanced fire potential.”

Clabo provided some June comparisons from around the state and some of the data will include years in which there were significant droughts in South Dakota and the Upper Midwest.

Sioux Falls: As of June 23, only 1933 and 1988 experienced a warmer June than this June. This is the 5th driest June 1 – June 22 period on record. (data goes back to 1893). Pierre: As of June 23, only 1936, and 1956, and 1988 have experienced a warmer June than this June. This is the 8th driest June 1 – June 22 period on record. (data goes back to 1934) Rapid City: As of June 23, only 1956, and 1961, and 1988 have experienced a warmer June than this June. This is the 34th driest June 1 – June 22 period on record. (data goes back to 1948) Aberdeen: As of June 23, only 1921, 1931, 1933, and 1988 have experienced a warmer June than this June. This is the 12th driest June 1 – June 22 period on record. (data goes back to 1893)

Taylor said the U.S. appears to be headed to a spot in an 89-year cycle.

There was a peak in 1846-1847, another in 1935-1936, Taylor said.

“We are building now to what could be the harshest year in an 89-year cycle,” Taylor said. But the year isn’t 2021, it’s 2025, he said.

The peaks of 1846-1847 and 1935-1936 had similar characteristics, Taylor said.

“The winter of 1935-1936 was coldest and wettest on record,” Taylor said. That was true for 1846-1847, he said.

“The winters of 1934 and 1936 were especially long and cold. The summer of 1936 saw one of the worst droughts ever recorded and crops dried up in the fields. Livestock died for lack of food and water,” said the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.

The drought of the 1930s, called the Dust Bowl, is familiar to most.

The South Dakota Historical Society has archived photos from the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s. The photos show the impact of the dry, hot conditions and farming practices.

“During the summers of 1934, 1936 and 1939-40, little rain fell, creating drought conditions in Iowa and across the Midwest. Extreme high temperatures topped 100 degrees sometimes for weeks at a time,” according to the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.

“The Dust Bowl drought severely affected much of the United States during the 1930s. The drought came in three waves, 1934, 1936, and 1939-1940, but some regions of the High Plains experienced drought conditions for as many as eight consecutive years,” the South Dakota 2015 state drought mitigation plan.

Farming practices had transformed to using tractors and other equipment which meant more land was farmed and tillage practices left little or no cover after crops were harvested.

But the weather was also tough on the region during the 1950s.

The driest month of record in the United States, based on records dating from 1886, was October 1952, according to the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.

Iowa was among the states most negatively impacted by lack of rain during the 1950s drought, the Iowa department said.

By 1954 the impact had spread from the Texas panhandle to central and eastern South Dakota, western Kansas, and central Nebraska which experienced severe drought conditions, according to the 2015 South Dakota drought mitigation plan.

“For several states, the severity of the 1950s drought exceeded that of the 1930s Dust Bowl, according to a March 2016 paper “Bite without bark: How the socioeconomic context of the 1950s U.S. drought minimized responses to a multiyear extreme climate event,” published by science.com.

Dry conditions and wind negatively impacted crop acres, but not as much as in the 1930s.

A chart of wind damaged farm acres from the 1955-1957 drought. The chart is from the “Drought of the 1950’s with Special Reference to the Midcontinent” published by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

But, “Intense drought conditions reappeared in 1956 as severe runoff deficiencies overspread the Southwest and Midcontinent as far north as southern Minnesota and southeastern South Dakota,” the report “Drought of the 1950s with Special Reference to the Midcontinent” published by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Fast forward about 20 years and reach another drought year. Or at least a very dry year.

The 1975-1976 drought was short but severe, and similar to the 2012-2013 drought in agricultural impacts, according to the 2015 South Dakota mitigation plan.

KELOLAND News reported in 1976 that farmers were selling cattle because of a lack of hay caused by the drought conditions.

The state of South Dakota calls it a 1988-1992 drought in its 2015 mitigation plan.

The Minnesota Department of Resources said in a January 1989 report that the 1988 drought broke many long-standing records. The DNR report said 6.6 inches of rain fell from April through July. It was second driest in 100 years.

The average temperature from May through August was 69.7 degrees, two degrees higher than the record of 1936, according to the DNR report.

“This drought contributed to large wildland fires in the Black Hills,” said the South Dakota 2015 mitigation plan. “Conditions became so severe that the state considered using cloud seeding, despite the bad press
associated with cloud seeding in the aftermath of the 1972 Rapid City flood.”

“For the May-June period, 1988 was the driest year of the 93-year record. Only the droughts of 1930, 1933, 1934, and 1936 have equaled or exceeded the combination of heat and dryness experienced in 1988 over the Midwest region,” said an October 1988 report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Climate Program Office.

Although Taylor said based on 600 years of evidence the worst of the dry, hot weather may still be a few years away. If it happens it won’t be exactly like the 1930s.

Farming practices have greatly improved since the 1930s.

“If we have it just as bad as the Dust Bowl, I don’t expect it to be a Dust Bowl,” Taylor said in terms of blowing dust and topsoil.

Drifted soil covers a grove of trees in 1935. Photo courtesy of the South Dakota Historical Society.

But, in terms of how to conserve water or other improvements since the Dust Bowl, Taylor is not so sure America has learned as much.

Climate change could impact the next big event in the cycle, Taylor said. Also, 2025 isn’t a guarantee because nature can have its own timetable, he said.

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