Notable blunders

6th December 2002 at 00:00
"Many days this spring," one woman wrote in her diary, "the air is just full of dirt... It sifts into everything. After we wash the dishes and put them away, so much dirt sifts into the cupboards we must wash them again before the next meal."

The entry, dated April 1934, describes one of the hellish dust storms that brought darkness and death to a great swath of the United States throughout much of the 1930s.

They called it the Dust Bowl and, although the immediate cause was a severe drought that continued until the Second World War, it was human activity during the preceding years of normal rainfall that sowed the seeds of disaster.

In their natural state, the Great Plains of the American mid-west were covered by hardy grasses that held the soil in place whatever the weather. Such land is only fit for moderate grazing. But in the 30 years before the First World War, large numbers of homesteaders settled the region and began planting wheat and raising cattle - activities which, come a drought, would leave the soil at the mercy of the elements.

And in 1931, the drought came. Soon, the winds that harry the area began picking up the exposed topsoil, carrying some of it as far as the eastern seaboard, 2,400 kilometres away.

For those living in the path of the lung-clogging "black blizzards", there was no escape, while for the farmers whose fields and crops were being carried away on the winds, escape was the only option.

Hundreds of thousands of destitute homesteaders fled the stricken region - an exodus which was to be immortalised in the songs of Woody Guthrie and the novels of John Steinbeck.

By the end of 1934 it was reckoned that 35 million acres of cultivated land had been destroyed for crop production and that 125 million acres were rapidly losing their topsoil.

The following year, Congress set up the Soil Conservation Service to promote good soil management practices. Yet today, many of the lessons are still being ignored and experts have predicted that prolonged drought could one day spark another Dust Bowl.

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