This article originally was published on Yale Environment 360.
Growing up in rural Iowa in the 1990s, Isaac Larsen remembers a unique herald of springtime. The snowbanks piled along roads, once white or gray, would turn black. The culprit was windblown dust, stirred from barren farm fields into the air.
Even as some of the region’s farmers have adopted more sustainable practices, the dust still flies. Not long ago, Larsen’s mother told her son about an encounter with a dust storm, saying “the soil was just blowing across the road — almost like a blizzard, but black.”
Larsen, a 42-year-old geoscientist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, recently published a paper on soil loss in the U.S. Corn Belt. Since farming began, Larsen and his coauthors estimate that more than one-third of the Corn Belt — nearly 30 million acres — has lost all of its nutrient- and carbon-rich topsoil. Similar processes also are taking place on the neighboring Great Plains, a sprawling region that includes Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas, as well as parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Montana and Colorado.
Each dust storm represents a thin layer of the earth, exfoliated by the atmosphere and relocated. Over time, as countless such storms have swept across the Midwest and Great Plains, they have removed the legacy of thousands of years of plant life and death there. The most striking example was the 1930s Dust Bowl, the environmental and agricultural catastrophe that stripped topsoil from millions of acres across the American interior, plunging farmers into bankruptcy, destroying crops and fundamentally reshaping the heartland.
The region is projected to be hit by dozens more days with temperatures above 100 degrees F.
Much has changed in the U.S. heartland since the 1930s, with widespread irrigation and — on some farms — improved agricultural practices. But given the rising temperatures and worsening droughts caused by global warming, some scientists are asking whether the U.S. breadbasket is headed for another Dust Bowl.
In a 2018 National Climate Assessment, U.S. scientists warned that under current warming scenarios, temperatures in the southern Great Plains could increase by 3.6 to 5.1 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050 and by 4.4 to 8.4 F by 2100, compared to the 1976-2005 average. The region is projected to be hit by dozens more days with temperatures above 100 F. Temperature increases are likely to be less severe in the northern part of the region, but the entire Great Plains is nevertheless expected to weather both more heatwaves and periods of extreme drought, according to the National Climate Assessment.
The seeds of the Dust Bowl were sown when farmers in the early 20th century tore out millions of acres of hardy native grasses to plant wheat and corn during a relatively wet period. Then, when a historic, multi-year drought and heatwave occurred in the 1930s, the crops died and the exposed topsoil was left dry and loose, ripe to be…
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