Dust Bowl 2012? Not so fast

As the Midwest drought of 2012 intensifies, parched fields and mounting numbers of heat-stressed livestock are fueling the rumors of a developing disaster that could rival the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

Not so fast, drought experts and meteorologists suggest.

The 2012 drought has already caused a significant number of headaches for farmers and consumers, including lost crop yields and raising feed prices, which will likely translate into a jump in meat and dairy product prices, Discovery News reports.  Despite this, current drought conditions are still far better than those experienced during Dust Bowl.

"In terms of percent area of country affected by drought (as measured by the Palmer Drought Index), the 1930's Dust Bowl decade is the worst drought on record by spatial area," says Richard Heim, a meteorologist and drought expert with NOAA's National Climactic Data Center.  

Modern estimates suggest that 100 million acres of farmland were lost during that period, forcing farmers to abandon their farms, businesses to close and entire towns collapse.  

According to the Weather Channel, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s wasn't caused solely by drought. Instead, it was a perfect storm of a natural disaster caused by a combination of weather, environmental and educational factors that dominated the 1930s, primarily 1934 and 1936.

"In July of 1934, 80 percent of the country was affected by drought," Heim told a Weather Channel reporter. "At its peak the drought went from the West Coast, to the Great Plains, to the Midwest and the East Coast."

To compare, the USDA's latest Agricultural Weather and Drought Update showed that currently 64 percent of the continental U.S. is covered by moderate to severe drought conditions, though drought is impacting 88 percent of the corn grown in the country.  

While this drought is quickly becoming one of the most severe and widespread droughts in the last century, modern farming practices and the anticipated length of this drought makes it fall short of surpassing the Dust Bowl.

"For most of the central and northern United States, this is a drought that has only developed over the past 90 days, so at this point it's just a single year of brief but intense drought," John Nielsen-Gammon, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&;M University in College Station told Discovery News. "Most farmers can deal with one year of drought."

While a drought – or any weather event – cannot be stopped by human force, a lot has been changed since the Dust Bowl:



Large percentage of Americans were farmers

Smaller percentage of farmers

Sustained drought over a large area of the country

Sustained drought not as widespread as the Dust Bowl

Farmers stripped the land of natural defenses, such as native grasses

Decades of replanting of native grasses, trees

Unsustainable farming practices

New farming practices, such as crop rotation and cover crops

The Climate Prediction Center is projecting the hot and dry weather pattern to condition for much of the central and eastern regions of the country over the next three months, but a few good rain storms could help alleviate concerns. However, time is of the essence.

"The good news is that this drought formed recently," David Miskus, a meteorologist at NOAA's Climate Prediction Center told Discovery News. "Since it's still short-term, if we get into a wet spell, it could be improved pretty quickly."

Miskus added that if it is going to rain, "it's got to start here pretty quick."

El Niño, which usually allows weak storm fronts to soak the Midway, isn't developing as quickly as expected, though the weather pattern is still expected to form sometime in the third- or fourth- quarter of 2012. Read more here.

Speak out: Is this the worst drought you have experienced?