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USGS on Dust-Bowlification: Drier conditions projected to accelerate dust storms in the U.S. Southwest

By Joe Romm  

"USGS on Dust-Bowlification: Drier conditions projected to accelerate dust storms in the U.S. Southwest"


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Oklahoma now drier than the 1930s Dust Bowl

Drier conditions projected to result from climate change in the Southwest will likely reduce perennial vegetation cover and result in increased dust storm activity in the future, according to a new study by scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of California, Los Angeles.

The research team examined climate, vegetation and soil measurements collected over a 20-year period in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in southeastern Utah. Long-term data indicated that perennial vegetation in grasslands and some shrublands declined with temperature increases. The study then used these soil and vegetation measurements in a model to project future wind erosion.

That’s from the USGS news release for its Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study, “Responses of wind erosion to climate-induced vegetation changes on the Colorado Plateau.”

Dust-Bowlification “” combined with the impact on food insecurity of Dust-Bowlification (and other extreme events) “” is, I believe, the biggest impact that climate change is likely to have on most people for most of this century (until sea level rise gets serious in the latter decades).

If you want to know what a serious dust storm looks like, the place to go is the canary in the coal mine for climate change — Australia.   Here’s an amazing video of  the great Sydney Dust Storm of September ’09:

As NASA’s Earth Observatory described the superstorm:

A wall of dust stretched from northern Queensland to the southern tip of eastern Australia on the morning of September 23, 2009, when the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Terra satellite captured this image [see amazing photo below]. The dust is thick enough that the land beneath it is not visible. The storm, the worst in 70 years, led to canceled or delayed flights, traffic problems, and health issues, reported the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) News. The concentration of particles in the air reached 15,000 micrograms per cubic meter in New South Wales during the storm, said ABC News. A normal day sees a particle concentration 10-20 micrograms per cubic meter.

Something to look forward to.

Indeed, the AP reported yesterday:

Dust Bowl states see farms dry up, fires rage

Drought expected to worsen; grass so dry ‘it’s like gasoline’ for wildfires

… Oklahoma was drier in the four months following Thanksgiving than it has been in any similar period since 1921. That’s saying a lot in the state known for the 1930s Dust Bowl, when drought, destructive farming practices and high winds generated severe dust storms that stripped the land of its topsoil.

Neighboring states are in similar shape as the drought stretches from the Louisiana Gulf coast to Colorado, and conditions are getting worse, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor.

The USGS release continues:

The findings strongly suggest that sustained drought conditions across the Southwest will accelerate loss of grasses and some shrubs and increase the likelihood of dust production on disturbed soil surfaces in the future. However, the community of cyanobacteria, mosses and lichens that hold the soil together in many semiarid and arid environments””biological soil crusts””prevented wind erosion from occurring at most sites despite reductions in perennial vegetation.

“Accelerated rates of dust emission from wind erosion have large implications for natural systems and human well-being, so developing a better understanding of how climate change may affect wind erosion in arid landscapes is an important and emerging area of research,” said Seth Munson, a USGS ecologist and the study’s lead author.

Dust carried by the wind has received recent attention because of its far-reaching effects, including the loss of nutrients and water-holding capacity from source landscapes, declines in agricultural productivity and health and safety concerns. Dust is also a contributing factor in speeding up the melting of snow, which affects the timing and magnitude of runoff into streams and rivers.

Peak wind speeds in the Southwest during the study period generated high rates of sediment transport.

The study itself concludes:

Thus the effects of increased temperature on perennial plant cover and the correlation of declining plant cover with increased aeolian flux strongly suggest that sustained drought conditions across the southwest will accelerate the likelihood of dust production in the future on disturbed soil surfaces.

That’s now my new favorite euphemism for a massive dust storm — “increased aeolian flux.”

A number of major recent studies warn that the Southwest (along with many other highly populated parts of the globe) is likely headed toward sustained — if not near permanent — drought and Dust Bowl-like conditions if we stay anywhere near our current emissions path.  Regular readers can skip the rest, but I include the review for the sake of completeness and for the do-little crowd.

Here’s what we need to “adapt to”:

“¦the climate change that is taking place because of increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop”¦.   Among illustrative irreversible impacts that should be expected if atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations increase from current levels near 385 parts per million by volume (ppmv) to a peak of 450-600 ppmv over the coming century are irreversible dry-season rainfall reductions in several regions comparable to those of the “dust bowl” era

The irreversible precipitation changes hit the U.S. Southwest, Southeast Asia, Eastern South America, Western Australia, Southern Europe, Southern Africa, and northern Africa.

Note also that this is only 450 to 600 ppm.  We’re on track for 800 to 1000 ppm this century on our current emissions path “” a path we are sure to stay on if we listen to the do-little we-can-adapt crowd (see “Our hellish future: Definitive NOAA-led report on U.S. climate impacts warns of scorching 9 to 11°F warming over most of inland U.S. by 2090 with Kansas above 90°F some 120 days a year “” and that isn’t the worst case, it’s business as usual!” and M.I.T. doubles its 2095 warming projection to 10°F “” with 866 ppm and Arctic warming of 20°F).

  • Back in October, the National Center for Atmospheric Research published a complete literature review, “Drought under global warming: a review,” (See NCAR analysis warns we risk multiple, devastating global droughts even on moderate emissions path). That study makes clear that Dust-Bowlification may be the impact of human-caused climate change that hits the most people by mid-century, as the figure below suggests (click to enlarge, “a reading of -4 or below is considered extreme drought”):

drought map 3 2060-2069

The PDSI [Palmer Drought Severity Index] in the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl apparently spiked very briefly to -6, but otherwise rarely exceeded -3 for the decade (see here).

The large-scale pattern shown in Figure 11 [of which the figure above is part] appears to be a robust response to increased GHGs. This is very alarming because if the drying is anything resembling Figure 11, a very large population will be severely affected in the coming decades over the whole United States, southern Europe, Southeast Asia, Brazil, Chile, Australia, and most of Africa.

The National Center for Atmospheric Research notes “By the end of the century, many populated areas, including parts of the United States, could face readings in the range of -8 to -10, and much of the Mediterranean could fall to -15 to -20. Such readings would be almost unprecedented.”

For the record, the NCAR study merely models the IPCC’s “moderate” A1B scenario “” atmospheric concentrations of CO2 around 520 ppm in 2050 and 700 in 2100.  We’re currently on the A1F1 pathway, which would takes us to 1000 ppm by century’s end, but I’m sure with an aggressive program of energy R&D we could keep that to, say 900 ppm.

  • The UK Met Office came to a similar view four years ago in their analysis, projecting severe drought over 40% of the Earth’s habited landmass by century’s end (see “The Century of Drought“).

The projection of extended if not endless drought for the US Southwest has been studied a great deal:

The serious hydrological changes and impacts known to have occurred in both historic and prehistoric times over North America reflect large-scale changes in the climate system that can develop in a matter of years and, in the case of the more severe past megadroughts, persist for decades. Such hydrological changes fit the definition of abrupt change because they occur faster than the time scales needed for human and natural systems to adapt, leading to substantial disruptions in those systems. In the Southwest, for example, the models project a permanent drying by the mid-21st century that reaches the level of aridity seen in historical droughts, and a quarter of the projections may reach this level of aridity much earlier.

An unprecedented combination of heat plus decades of drought could be in store for the Southwest sometime this century, suggests new research from a University of Arizona-led team”¦.

“The bottom line is, we could have a Medieval-style drought with even warmer temperatures,” [lead author Connie] Woodhouse said.

  • A new Environmental Research Letters article, “Characterizing changes in drought risk for the United States from climate change,” comes to a similar conclusion as the NCAR study, “Drought frequencies and uncertainties in their projection tend to increase considerably over time and show a strong worsening trend along higher greenhouse gas emissions scenarios, suggesting substantial benefits for greenhouse gas emissions reductions.”  See especially Figure 4C.

Finally, another 2011 study, “The Last Drop: Climate Change and the Southwest Water Crisis,” that actually looks in some detail at the scientific literature for just one region, finds that drought and reduced precipitation in the U.S. SW alone could cost up to $1 trillion by century’s end.

That’s something for the adapters to plan for and the rest of the world to suffer through if we’re too greedy and ignorant to spend a small fraction of our wealth on mitigation to avoid it.

Here’s one last amazing video of ‘increased aeolian flux’ in Australia:


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23 Responses to USGS on Dust-Bowlification: Drier conditions projected to accelerate dust storms in the U.S. Southwest

  1. sydb says:

    So this will be Sen James Imhofe’s “legacy” to the voters of Oklahoma. The hand that sows shall indeed reap the field. Unfortunately, so will billions of other people who never shared in the final orgy of consumption. Meanwhile, the willfully ignorant low life of the House of Representitives pocket their oil bribes and try to deny the science. Just what will future generations-if there are any-think of us?

  2. Merrelyn Emery says:

    I laughed at my friends who were shocked by the 09 dust storm on the E coast and told them it was nothing. The real thing is more like the second video from Broken Hill where I remember from my childhood that it was pitch black and roaring, screaming noise for hours and the conditions were so extreme, they caused violent electrical storms, ME

  3. Peter M says:

    Projections for climate in the the lower mid south, OK, Texas, Missouri, Kansas have all been conservative. It seems that tomorrow is nearly today, in that dust bowl conditions are a few years off, not mid century.

  4. Michael Tucker says:

    “..climate change that is taking place because of increases in carbon dioxide concentration is largely irreversible for 1,000 years after emissions stop.”

    “…the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children…I speak my agitation of the matter: therefore be of good cheer; for, truly, I think you are damned.” (The Merchant of Venice)

    Thanks Joe for including the video of the Sydney dust storm…a vision of hell on earth.

  5. Aaron Lewis says:

    Is “increased aeolian flux” good for wind farms?

    >No, it is hard on the equipment.

  6. Mark says:

    re sydb (#1) “Sen James Imhofe’s ‘legacy’ to the voters of Oklahoma”……

    After getting past the horror, that is preciously outrageously funny in a karmic irony sort of way. Anyone in OK planning on turning some this videography into a traveling “OMG, what’s the senator smoking?” roadshow?

  7. Mike Roddy says:

    Things are getting interesting in the Mojave Desert of Southern California. It may be the best utility scale solar site in the world- half the rainfall of the Sahara, for example. Fake enviros succeeded in blocking and delaying solar projects in California, bringing up lizards and tortoises- even though solar projects tend to be in barren, low elevation sites.

    The irony is that rangers at Joshua Tree National Park will tell you that global warming will upset the reproductive cycles of joshua trees, which are the keystone plant species in region, providing habitat for many species. If solar projects are successfully stalled, overall desert degradation will proceed very quickly.

    Solar companies are all in the early stages, and delays in deployment and permitting mean huge working capital hits, raising costs. Coal and gas don’t have that problem, in addition to working with off the shelf equipment and even site plans.

    We need Obama here, to send the right market signals both ways- yes to solar financing and entitlements, no to coal and gas plants.

  8. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Michael Tucker #4. It really wasn’t that bad for a dust storm. It just looks bad because the dust is bright red. See the people walking and cycling around – you can’t do that in a serious dust storm, ME

  9. Brad Pierce says:

    Solar projects in the desert make a lot of sense, such as http://www.desertec.org/en/concept/ . It would be even better if these projects could start directly reversing the desertification, too, while they’re in the neighborhood, not just generally help by preventing global warming. Other human damage besides just global warming contribute to desertification.

    According to Keith Westre “If the Sahara were to return to it’s previous lushness … it would possibly be a greater carbon sink than any proposal that I have read about.
    Building a canal to The Qatarra depresion and dumping the Mediteranean in it as has been proposed for nearly a hundred years now. might speed up the process.
    The project was originally to make electricity but can be engineered to make fresh water cheaply, remove bicarbonates ( CO2+H20 ) make bicarbonates which is the form most CO2 is in the seas. It would also add water vapor to the atmosphere over land. It would also help reduce sea levels. It’s been said that the depression could hold all the ice in greenland.” Source: http://environmentsolutions.wordpress.com/2007/08/14/greening-the-sahara-to-reverse-desertification/

    And it could be used to cultivate gentically engineered halophyte algae for biofuels : http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2009/03/algae-power-the-future-is-green-and-salty/

  10. Sou says:

    When the dust storms hit Sydney and Melbourne, it’s already travelled 100s of kilometres. When it gets as far as New Zealand, as that one did in 2009 – that is one serious dust storm.


    Here is a video of what it was like in Broken Hill 23 September 2009 when it went completely dark at 3 o’clock in the afternoon (spring time and should be normal daylight):

    More videos are around as well.

  11. Joan Savage says:

    Pictures of 1935 Dust Bowl dust storms look like the wall of cloud that is seen in the Broken Hill, Australia video (2009). The 2009 video showed an abrupt shift from daylight to complete darkness. I would have been caught by that darkness as I am more familiar with diffuse sunlight penetrating even a thick water-based fog, and not being from a Dust Bowl survivor family, either.

    I really doubt if Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) would see dust storms as a sign of climate change. He would be more likely to re-frame a dust storm into his base beliefs, so it would seem to be a recurrence of the “natural” Dust Bowl conditions of the 1930s.

    But, I can re-frame information to fit my beliefs, too!

    Was the Dust Bowl only a normal part of the long cycling of droughts in that region, droughts that have occurred many times in the Holocene? Some see the severity of the Dust Bowl as a coming together of several factors, the farming practices that bared the soil and a phase in a climate cycle.

    The IPCC (2007) reports seemed limited in what the panel felt could be said about when anthropogenic climate change became evident. Since that report, some of the data sets, particularly the marine phytoplankton decline and details of the CO2 rise in recent centuries, have become available.

    Back in the 1980s, deeper summer melting of permafrost was discussed among scientists, without having a public voice for the implications of that.

    So, what in hindsight were earliest indicators of anthropogenic climate change?

    And in particular, does anyone have the means to model when it became an exacerbating factor, like applying an ANOVA (analysis of variability)?
    And back on topic, was the 1930s drought a pristinely “natural” phenomenon, or not? The dust severity was related to farming, but how about the drought?

  12. Raul M. says:

    In trying to come up with a new description
    Of modern thought, fellusional.
    Church and state seem to agree that we
    Should be because we haven’t committed
    Horendous crimes.
    They seem to point out that we should be
    Less hopeful because of many technical
    So with modern media illusional is good.
    And the buget delusional is good.
    But a new description with nuclear
    Being clean, green, and too cheap
    To meter might be fellusional.
    I must have made to many mistakes
    In the analysts to measure, any help?

  13. Joan Savage says:

    ANOVA is analysis of variance, not variability, so I’ll stick in that correction before someone pounces! Perhaps more sophisticated tests have come along since I took multivariate statistics, so ANOVA is primarily for illustration purposes.

  14. Joan Savage says:

    A picture of note about drought is in the NYT article:
    “At Australia’s Bunny Fence, Variable Cloudiness Prompts Climate Study”
    By SONAL NOTICEWALA Published: August 14, 2007


    Note the aerial photograph from Murdoch University. Scattered cumulus clouds had formed over forest, while across the fence, arid cropland baked under cloudless skies.

  15. Andy Hultgren says:


    You wrote “Regular readers can skip the rest, but I include the review for the sake of completeness and the do-little crowd.”

    I read this blog every day, so I am certainly a regular reader (if not a regular commenter). I’d just like to point out that the collection of links and excerpts which follows the quote above was very useful.

    Thanks for pulling it together, and I’d encourage other regular readers to keep reading!

  16. Leif says:

    Joan Savage, @ 14: Your post brings to mind a similar problem here on the West Coast and the California Pacific Red Woods. A valuable summer moisture source for the big trees is the summer Pacific fog that has declined ~ 30% in the last century. Again there are no clear answers but IMO the cutting of forests and associated coastal development is a major culprit. With a thick forest, cool moist air is held close to the ground. The forest has lots of surface area for night time dew to collect and slowly evaporate as the morning sun rises. In addition the forest will shade the forest floor thus starting the night air cooler than pavement and fields promoting that much more dew collection. With development of houses, roads, yards and farmland between the coast and upland forests the land can warm much faster and effectively stop the progression of fog inland. Anyone familiar with foggy coastal living has seen how fast fog can dissipate as it strikes warm land and once vaporized much latent energy must be lost to reform clouds or ground level clouds, fog.

  17. Seth B says:

    Senator Inhofe’s (correct spelling, commenters) disregard for the people of Oklahoma and their land is even worse than his disregard for science. And that’s saying something . . .

  18. Mike Roddy says:

    Leif, you’re right, but I’ve always thought clearcutting was the biggest factor. Only about 5% of the original redwoods remain, and it is the large trees that capture the most fog.

  19. Mark says:

    Lief (16), your main idea is an interesting one… how development and regional logging affects coastal fog. I bet there’s something to that.

    Just a small quibble with a detail… redwood stands themselves don’t like thick forest. They’re a frequent creeping-groundfire species, that likes grassy sunlight between scattered trees. Check out the side by side photos from 1890 and recent times here


  20. Susan says:

    Dust bowl of the future? How about now? I had to leave Phoenix in 2002 because the hot days were coming earlier and lasting longer, the nights weren’t cooling down, and between the air pollution and dust storms, it became impossible to work outdoors with horses anymore. So I moved to northern Arizona…where the wind progressed to stronger and stronger storms over the past eight years, summers have become unbearably hot and the dust so bad that once again, I had to quit the horse business due to dust allergies and adverse reaction to extreme heat. Computer models for the coming years are probably conservative compared to the rate of change I’ve seen in just two short decades. Everybody should make a trip to Phoenix in June or July to experience extreme climate change in action (and just try spending a couple of hours outdoors in the afternoon).

  21. sailrick says:

    Mike Roddy
    What we should have are govt. loan guarantees for large solar projects