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Scenes of 'Dust Bowl Days' Return As Oklahoma Storm Causes Highway Pileup

Year of high temps and record drought portends climate future for once fertile croplands

Common Dreams staff

(Photo By The Ponca City News, Rolf Clements)

Dramatic video footage and eye witness accounts from Oklahoma on Thursday tell the story of a scene right out of the Depression-era 'Dust Bowl days' as a massive wind-swept cloud of 'reddish-brown' dirt made visibility impossible on a stretch of Interstate-35 between Oklahoma City and Kansas City, Mo.

The mid-western states have experienced some of the highest temperatures on record this year and a severe drought has devastated corn crops and turned once thriving fields to brown. Scientists make direct connections between these trends and the growing impact of climate change fueled by human-caused global warming.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Jodi Palmer, a dispatcher with the Kay County Sheriff’s Office, told the Associated Press. “In this area alone, the dirt is blowing because we’ve been in a drought. I think from the drought everything’s so dry and the wind is high.”

“You have the perfect combination of extended drought in that area ... and we have the extremely strong winds,” said Gary McManus, the Oklahoma associate state climatologist, also speaking with AP.

“Also, the timing is bad because a lot of those farm fields are bare. The soil is so dry, it’s like powder. Basically what you have is a whole bunch of topsoil waiting for the wind to blow it away. It’s no different from the 1930s than it is now.”

Experts have warned for years about the impact of top soil erosion caused by an over-reliance on industrial farming practices, including heavy use of chemical fertilizers.

As science journalist April Kelsey, writing for Suite 101, explains:

The chemical fertilizers and pesticides commercial farmers rely on to produce high single-crop yields kill many of the essential microorganisms and insects that aerate and build the soil, while heavy farming machinery destroys soil structure through compaction. Chemicals also leach water from the soil, making it salty and acidic and leaving crops vulnerable to drought. Dry and damaged soil erodes much faster than healthy soil.

Experts estimate that 66 percent of U.S. soil degradation and erosion has resulted directly from these kinds of agricultural practices. The corn fields of the U.S. Midwest are "an area of particular local concern," where as much as 75 percent of the topsoil has been lost to erosion.

A report by Bloomberg this week, headlined Warming climate sends US corn belt north, described how agribusiness giants—the same companies that have fueled the great monocultures and destructive farming practices in the mid-west—are already making large investments further north to prepare for the dwindling ability of now debilitated croplands in more southern regions.

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