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New York Times blows the Dust Bowl story

By Joe Romm  

"New York Times blows the Dust Bowl story"

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County Commissioner: “There’s no economic growth whatsoever. It’s going to have to be wind energy or we’ll die.”

Pray for Rain

Actual NY Times caption:  “A church made an apt request.”

Media miscoverage of climate change comes in many forms.  We still have false balance between climate science and denial, contrary to the myth of flawed analyses.  And we have general under-coverage of the story of the century (Media coverage of climate change “fell off the map” in 2010).

Among the most troublesome forms of miscoverage are stories on extreme weather or a changing climate that make no mention of climate change whatsoever or actually mis-state what climate scientists believe [see "if the NY Times can't tell the (bark beetle) story (twice!), how will the public hear it?"].  That latter mistake was on full display today with a front-page (!) story, “Town, Survivor of Dust Bowl, Now Battles a Fiercer Drought.”  The story begins well:

While tornadoes and floods have ravaged the South and the Midwest, the remote western edge of the Oklahoma Panhandle is quietly enduring a weather calamity of its own: its longest drought on record, even worse than the Dust Bowl, when incessant winds scooped up the soil into billowing black clouds and rolled it through this town like bowling balls.

With a drought continuing to punish much of the Great Plains, this one stands out. Boise (rhymes with voice) City has gone 222 consecutive days through Tuesday with less than a quarter-inch of rainfall in any single day, said Gary McManus, a state climatologist. That is the longest such dry spell here since note-keeping began in 1908.

But then the piece veers sharply off course in the very next sentence:

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, caused in part by the careless gouging of the earth in an effort to farm it, created an epic environmental disaster. Experts say it is unlikely to be repeated because farming has changed so much.

No, no, a thousand times no.  Well, a dozen-studies no, in any case.

Yes, human actions helped created the 1930s Dust Bowls.  Guess what, multiple scientific studies make clear human actions make it likely we will see a repeat — indeed, we are on a path for far worse than the Dust Bowls.

Ironically — or is that embarrassingly? –  the NY Times actually ran a photo of a church calling on people to “pray for rain” with a caption calling it an “apt request.”  Really, former paper of record?  Prayer is the apt response?  How about accurate reporting of the science?  Would that be apt?

I went through that literature last month in my post “USGS on Dust-Bowlification: Drier conditions projected to accelerate dust storms in the U.S. Southwest.”  With apologies to regular readers, as long as the major “prestige media” continues to miscover the story, I’m going to keep reposting the ever-growing body of literature on the ever-growing danger of Dust-Bowlification we face from our ever-growing levels of greenhouse gases.

First, though it is worth noting that the NYT story makes no mention of climate change at all.  Second, the NYT does end with this remarkable pro-wind bit:

John Freeman, a county commissioner, estimated that 3,000 trucks a day passed through now and provided half the county’s sales tax revenues. He hopes the county can make up for that loss, several times over, by harnessing the inexhaustible supply of wind. But the permitting process for wind farms takes years, and transmission power lines are not yet built.

Like many other small towns that survived the Dust Bowl, Boise City now seems on the verge of extinction.

“There’s no economic growth whatsoever,” Mr. Freeman lamented. “It’s going to have to be wind energy or we’ll die.”

Talk about burying a great story

The USGS 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.

“¦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.

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.

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 ‘increased aeolian flux’ in Australia:

Here’s another incredible 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 — especially if the media keeps miscovering the story, telling the public there is nothing to worry about, until it is too late.

‹ May 4 news: Gas prices lift small-car sales; Dems push tough oil vote on GOP; Canada’s election bad for climate

Fact Check: Scott Brown Voted To Hurt Sick Children ›

34 Responses to New York Times blows the Dust Bowl story

  1. joy hughes says:

    I recommend a book called “The Worst Hard Time” about the dust bowl in Boise, Dalhart, TX, and Baca County Colorado. People were dying of dust pneumonia, houses buried under dust drifts – and people couldn’t even get out over dust-covered roads.

    The only reason it hasn’t happened like that is the soil conservation work that’s been done, as NYT states. That’s why the drought is worse but the dust not as bad. The failure to mention climate is unforgiveable.

  2. Mike Roddy says:

    Microeconomics will govern here. If they admit that their region is no longer viable due to global warming, it would have to be abandoned, with homes and property becoming worthless. That will happen eventually anyway, as Oklahomans head to Dallas and Little Rock, and will not be welcomed.

  3. Leland Palmer says:

    How long do we excuse this sort of deceptive coverage, by the New York Times, as “incompetence”?

    People like to believe other people are incompetent, and the Bush administration used the incompetence excuse over and over again to explain what were really covert policy decisions, not defensible by any other excuse.

    When do we start saying that the New York Times is a propaganda outlet, and that these “lapses” are deliberate, and due to the fossil fuel corporation influence on our elite decision making?

    We know that our corporate media is a propaganda system. We saw how it was used to achieve policy objectives like the aggressive invasion of the Middle East during the Bush administration, with little effective public opposition. Why do we keep treating the output of such propaganda outlets as the New York Times as legitimate or honest?

  4. Leif says:

    The flip side of the large drought projections and areas affected is that the warming atmosphere holds more and more water vapor, ( currently ~4% or ~half again as much water as contained in Lake Superior), that must come down someplace. With smaller areas of land receiving ever increasing rain fall the future is looking very dicey indeed. I can foresee the not too distant day we transform existing oil and gas pipelines to water conduits.

  5. Tom Street says:

    And, of course, Oklahoma has the biggest denier of all, James Inhofe. These people will cling to the false belief that this is just a transitory problem and will be wiped out totally no thanks to people like Inhofe.

  6. Sasparilla says:

    I read this article this morning and could only shake my head as the author completely missed that this is what climate scientists have said is in store for the southwest due to the ever increasing effects of climate change.

  7. Barry says:

    Looks like the NYT has become the “paper of religion”.

    When you hide the science that is what many people will turn to.

    * prayer-as-solution? Great, run with that angle and include a photo.

    * reducing-climate-pollution-as-solution? We are going to need to cut that part out of the story, sorry. Rules are rules.

  8. Barry says:

    I don’t think the authors of articles for NYT are all ignoring climate science. I’m sure many are adding it in and seeing it get left on the cutting room floor. It has to be an editorial policy at this point given how totally ubiquitous it has become.

    Mass incompetence and delusion by reporters…or intentional editorial policy?

  9. Robert In New Orleans says:

    Why would the NYT be afraid of calling them, what they really are “Climate Refugees”?

  10. Jim says:

    It is pathetic enough that the climate change connections to the INHOFE DROUGHT are not being reported – but it is also an essential feature of today’s reporting on weather and climate that reporters and editors fear the wrath of a climate science disinformation attack machine ready to spring into action. Of course, the House Energy and Commerce Committee is one branch of this disinformation machine.

  11. Oale says:

    The good point of sustainable energy infra is it can be built where people live as they do not pollute most anything -> there’s no need to build excessive power lines, but the downsides are extra production (if that ever happens) should have a storage nearby and expanding electric using businesses in a community level network would necessarily include also building extra producing capacity.

  12. scribe says:

    The Australian dust-storm videos have reduced me to tears. Too vivid a sneak peek of our own future, any year now… The crushing weight of inevitable catastrophe reminds me of a fictional Australian drama: On the Beach. This is real.

  13. Ken says:

    The NY Times is doing what mainstream news outlets do – preserving access to information from powerful news sources. Tom Street #5 and Jim #10 point out that Senator James Inhofe, a leading climate science denier, is from Oklahoma. Whatever you may think of Inhofe, we know what the NY Times thinks of him – Inhofe is a valuable news source. If the NY Times asserts climate change is the cause of a drought in his district then Inhofe will cut off access to the NY Times. For another example of this kind of behavior by the NY Times, look at its front page article today on “harsh interrogation techniques” which in a dictionary would be the definition of the word Torture. To preserve access to the powerful politicians who advocate for torture, the NY Times resorts to torturous euphemisms for Torture. Why would they treat Climate Change any differently? Honest reporting from mainstream news outlet will not ever give the facts on climate change since it is not in their interests to do so. This will never change. If you want to influence the NY Times, first influence the powerful news sources which are the bread and butter of the NY Times.

  14. madcitysmitty says:

    LIke #6 I read it with digust and anger this morning–and e-mailed to the editors to complain. You all said it perfectly–from inexcusable to Inhofe–but I’d guess that the partnership with Shell Oil on conferences and Exxon on advertising is more likely a factor than any partnership with religion.

  15. Joan Savage says:

    Editors have to know how to spread out a story-line for continued readership; first the personal interest pieces, then some related background stories, and for the die-hard readers, statistics, time lines, and bullet point side-bars.
    The story was sympathetic to human beings and barely touched on our dependence on food from the Great Plains, or more specifically, food that depends on the combination of rainfall and the High Plains Aquifer.
    The climate change emphasis might come in around third in a series of articles, after the human empathy and the food impacts; let’s see if they follow through in that direction, or are they going to lose track of the drought and hop on the Mississippi flood. I’ll give the NYT a few weeks; after all, it is likely that they read your blog.

  16. Kasra says:

    Speaking of Australia…

    http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2011-05-04/australian-carbon-price-proposal-opposed-by-60-of-voters-newspoll-says.html

    It really, really makes you wonder. I’ve understood Australia to be a sort of window into our own climate future. They’re already undergoing more frequent, extreme flooding and drought, and yet they STILL have this widespread denier/apathetic attitude.

    The idea that such events will prompt action in the U.S. thus seems far, far less likely. Obviously the poll in this article isn’t about believing in climate science, it’s about putting a price on CO2, but if people still aren’t willing to make sacrifices today for a better tomorrow, even when experiencing a taste of what’s to come, then what’s it going to take?

  17. MarkF says:

    “increased aeolian flux.”

    arghh.

    As has been said many times, this newspaper “jumped the shark”, with its coverage of the invasion of Iraq.

    Thanks for wading through all this B.S. so that other people don’t have to.

  18. Mike says:

    “Pray for science,” a new bumper sticker?

    [JR: I very much like that!]

  19. sydb says:

    I endorse Joy Hughes’ recomendation in #1 for “The Worst Hard Time.” It was a harrowing story and a great read. And, unlike now it seems, there were heroes too. Hugh Hammond Bennet-Big Hugh-had been warning about soil erosion since 1903, but conventional wisdom was that it couldn’t run out. But it blew away nevertheless.

    My favorite incident was when Bennet was asking Congress for money. He knew a “black duster” was on its way to Washington so he stalled for time until the sky darkened. When a congressman notied the dark sky and asked Bennet whether it was a dust stor, Bennet replied that it probably was. It was and the comittee were stunned. They gave him the money. He had the advantage of FDR backing him.

    I would say that Jim Hansen is today’s equivalent of Big Hugh. Sadly, like Bennet, he will have to wait for the disaster to occur, before he is listened to. This time, however, the damage will be much greater and completely beyond remediation.

    As for the press, and the media in general, the former British Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin, summed it up very well:

    “What the proprietorship of these papers is aiming at is power, and power without responsibility — the prerogative of the harlot through the ages.”

    So why do we expect anything from any of them?

  20. catman306 says:

    “Pray for Science.”
    two thumbs up!

  21. PurpleOzone says:

    There’s also the story on record Mississippi river floods.

    Has anybody noticed how ‘record’ or ‘highly unusual weather patterns’ are consuming more and more of the newspapers and television news?

    I remember when days, weeks, whole months went by without any weather disasters being reported

  22. espiritwater says:

    They should pray for enlightenment.

  23. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The NYT is part of a propaganda system. Chomsky and Herman outlined its parameters, methods and history pretty clearly in ‘Manufacturing Consent’ years ago, as have numerous others. In the UK there is a site, Medialens, that tirelessly exposes MSM bias and service to the money power, which, after all, controls it. Such MSM coverage as this is not just editorial policy, one arm of the elite protecting the central core of the entire system, the fossil fuel business, the greatest in history, and the US dollar reserve currency system, but also, I believe, the work of the journalists themselves. Believe me, as one who knows journalists and knew those of one or two generations back when my father was one, journalists today are Rightwing ideologues or they are unemployed. The MSM is so concentrated, so dominated by empires led by ideological zealots like Murdoch, that apostasy and thought crime are not tolerated.The NYT and the rest of the Western MSM will change tack only when the masters decide that there is more profit ‘blue sky’ in the truth than there is in destroying the planet’s life-support systems. Capitalism operates with the single-mindedness and indifference to all that is other to its metabolic demands of the cancer cell. It goes on, remorselessly, until it eliminates its host.

  24. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Kasra #16. In the latest Newspoll (May, 2011), 72% of Aussies that believed in CC [78%] believed humans were partly or entirely to blame for it, down from 96% the year before.

    The disparity between the two polls, cabon tax and belief in AGW, is the result of an extremely noisy, relentless and dishonest campaign by the opposition to the effect that this tax will raise the cost of living of every family, which is already going skyhigh because of the disasters and increases in the cost of food, water and electricity.

    This fear campaign builds on the efforts of deniers over recent years which accounts for the decline in belief between 2010 and 2011.

    The govt is due to release details of the carbon tax arrangements in July after they have finished negotiating with the Greens and Independents and I expect there will be a public change of heart when they reveal the compensation package for households, ME

  25. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Kasra #16. Beginning of May, 2011, Newspoll found that 72% of Aussies who believe CC is happening [78%] believe humans are partly or entirely to blame for it, down from 96% the year before.

    The discrepancy between the figures for carbon tax and belief in AGW is due to a very noisy, relentless and dishonest campaign by the opposition to the effect that the carbon tax will raise the cost of living for every family which is already going skyhigh because of the disasters and increases in the price of food, water and electricity.

    This fear campaign builds on the efforts of the deniers which account for the decline in belief from 2010 and 2011.

    The govt is due to release details about the carbon tax arrangements in July after finalizing the negotiations with the Greens and Independents. I expect that there will be a public change of heart after the compensation package for households is revealed, ME

  26. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Excellent post. Very thought provoking. Scientists and planers must read it.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  27. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Merrelyn, #24, I admire your optimism, and will make an effort to share it, but no politician ever failed in Australia by over-estimating the public’s greed, ignorance, gullibility and stupidity. ‘Howard’s battlers’, the Dunning-Kruger-Joyce mob, and the hideous ‘aspirationals’, choking on their greed for ‘more stuff’, are fertile fields for the ‘budgie smuggler’ to plough.

  28. SqueakyRat says:

    Welcome to Mars!

  29. Vic says:

    Kasra @ 16,

    I wouldn’t go placing too much weight on those numbers. Newspoll are, after all just another facet of Rupert Murdoch’s ministry of truth. Try doing a google search for “rupert murdoch newspoll” and you’ll see their deceptive practices are widely recognised.   

    That said, you are entirely correct in noting the “widespread denier/apathetic attitude” that exists in Australia at this time. Totally embarassing and largely inexplicable to this Aussie. I recently attended a pro-carbon tax rally in the Queensland capital, Brisbane. A city which less than two short years ago was on level 5 water restrictions and frantically rushing through plans for their first sea water desalination plant in the face of a record breaking, protracted drought which had reduced their water catchments to all time lows. A city now busy still cleaning mud out of basements and still surrounded by the stinking, stagnant, mosquito riddled water of some of the most freakish flood events this country has ever seen.  This city of two million people were all eye witnesses to these events and how many showed up to support a price on carbon ?   A little over one thousand. Shame on Brisbane. 
    Perhaps dodging category 5 cyclone Yasi with only one death gave them some sense of security. But I suspect it has more to do with the sheer volume of coal barons dispersed amongst the leafy green suburbs on the higher ground.

  30. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Vic #27, I would be a little careful here. I have no doubt about what the Australian does with its Newspoll results, censoring some they don’t like, playing up those they do, but Newspoll is a separate organization and these big pollsters live and die by the quality of their samples and results.

    Yes, they did get a ‘rogue’ poll result once which has been criticized by Gary Morgan but any statistician will tell you this is always on the cards with relatively small samples. Galaxy and Morgan have gotten ‘rogue’ results in the past as well. Every time this happens to a market research org, they are likely to lose customers and they avoid it like the plague.

    Mr Rabbott’s campaign has been more than sufficient to spread disaffection with the carbon tax, ME

  31. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Vic #27, I would be a little careful here. I have no doubt about what the Australian does with the poll results, censoring those they don’t like, playing up those they do they, but Newspoll is a separate organization and these big pollsters live and die by the quality of their samples and results.

    Yes, they did get a ‘rogue’ poll result once which has been criticized by Gary Morgan. But as any statistician will tell you this is always on the cards, particularly with relatively small samples. Both Galaxy and Morgan have gotten such ‘rogue’ results in the past. Every time this happens, these market research orgs are likely to lose customers and they avoid it like the plague.

    Mr Rabbott’s campaign has been more than sufficient to spread disaffection with the carbon tax, ME

  32. Paolo C. says:

    Joe, have you read about the sandstorm in Germany last month?

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TivkQH8mZUI

  33. Mike says:

    Sandstorm Causes Deadly Autobahn Crash

    http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,755945,00.html

    Up to 80 vehicles were involved in a mass pile-up on a German highway Friday which left several people dead and dozens more injured. The accident was apparently caused by a sandstorm after strong winds in the area.

    The strong winds had been blowing dry soil across fields in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania on Friday, with prolonged dry conditions in recent weeks affecting agriculture in the region.

    ——————-

    I have no idea what is normal weather in Germany or whether this event is unusual. Would be interesting to learn more.

  34. madcitysmitty says:

    I can see a deeply religious person putting a “Pray for science” bumper sticker on his/her car. Too ambiguous for me.