The heat waves that powered the Dust Bowl are now more than twice as likely to happen again

MICHAEL D’ESTRIES May 27, 2020

A dust storm approaches Stratford, Texas, in 1935.

A dust storm approaches Stratford, Texas, in 1935. (Photo: NOAA George E. Marsh Album [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)

They were called “black blizzards” and “black rollers,” towering billows of dust rising thousands of feet high that became ominous symbols of the catastrophic Dust Bowl that hit the United States during the 1930s. Sweeping across the Great Plains, these choking storms reduced visibility to less than three feet and, upon reaching the East Coast, blotted out the sun and erased from view prominent landmarks such as the Statue of Liberty and the U.S. Capitol Building.

“It has been a terrible week, with one day of almost complete obscurity, and others when only a part of the sun’s rays struggled through the gloom with a strange bluish luminance,” wrote one farmer in 1936. “On such days each little wave of the troubled water in the stock tank glitters with a blue phosphorescent light. When I dip out a pail of water to carry to the hen-house, it looks almost as if it were covered with a film of oil.”

All told, the Dust Bowl and the black blizzards it spawned triggered drought and erosion across more than 100 million acres of America’s agricultural heartland, stretching from Montana to Texas. While overgrazing and intensive farming practices laid the foundation for the ecological disaster, record-setting heatwaves in 1934 and 1936 — with the latter still the hottest ever recorded — provided the critical tipping point.

According to study just published in the journal Nature Climate Change, a Dust Bowl-like heat wave is now more than twice as likely to happen in the U.S. each century due to climate change. “These record-breaking events in 1934 and 1936 occurred perhaps once every hundred years, but with present day greenhouse gases they reduced to about one in every 30 or 40 years,” Tim Cowan, a research fellow at the University of Southern Queensland and the report’s lead author, told Forbes.

Buying time with groundwater

Heavy black clouds of dust rising over the Texas Panhandle, Texas, c. 1936

Heavy black clouds of dust rise over the Texas Panhandle, Texas, c. 1936 (Photo: Arthur Rothstein [public domain]/Wikimedia Commons)

If farming practices since the Dust Bowl have prevented another from happening, why should we be so concerned about the coming decades? According to the study, widespread use of groundwater irrigation by farmers has effectively kept a lid on black blizzards from appearing in modern times.

“Groundwater is used quite extensively across the U.S., and we know, from previous research, that increased irrigation and agricultural intensification has led to cooler summer maximum temperatures,” Cowan told CBS News.

With groundwater depletion already occurring and vast regions of the western U.S. already locked in what’s described as the first human-caused megadrought, it’s likely only a matter of time before the luck that has kept us sheltered from another Dust Bowl runs out. “Even though you have better practices in cropping now, the rises in temperature reduce those benefits, so there would still be a negative impact,” Cowan added.

The research team concludes that only reductions in both greenhouse gas emissions and groundwater use will help stem future instances of horizons streaked black with towering dust clouds. Warning that such events as the 1936 heat wave could become “the new normal,” study co-author Gabi Hegerl, professor of climate system science at the University of Edinburgh, told Forbes that the next decades will likely eclipse anything since. “With summer heat extremes expected to intensify over the US throughout this century, it is likely that the 1930s records will be broken in the near-future,” she said.

Michael d’Estries (  @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.

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These Colorado Cities Are Closing Streets This Summer To Help People Stay Socially Distant

By Nathaniel MinorMay 28, 2020SHARE:

Nearly empty 13th Street sidewalk on the Hill in Boulder
The nearly empty 13th Street sidewalk on the Hill in Boulder, Monday, May 18, 2018.

At least a dozen Colorado cities are making plans — or thinking about making plans — to temporarily close streets to give restaurants and other businesses more space to serve their customers. 

That supports the state’s new guidelines that allow restaurants to reopen while encouraging more outdoor dining to help ensure social distancing.

Some cities are allowing eateries to expand onto sidewalks and into alleyways, while others are creating new pedestrian malls. They all tend to be in relatively dense, downtown areas. Here’s a brief round-up.

Will Close Soon

Arvada

Much of Olde Town Arvada will close to cars through Labor Day.

Boulder

Several blocks near the existing Pearl Street pedestrian mall and in the University Hill business district will close Friday. The city is also streamlining the process for restaurants to expand seating onto nearby public and private property. 

Breckenridge

Part of Main Street will close to cars to create a pedestrian mall and give businesses more space, though some restaurant owners are skeptical about the plan. 

Carbondale

A block of Main Street will be reduced to one-way traffic to give restaurants more space. 

Louisville

Portions of Main Street will close this summer through Oct. 5. 

Ouray

The city will allow restaurants to use some nearby parking spots and sidewalks for more seating, but won’t close any streets. 

Salida

Two blocks of F Street in downtown will close, and nearby businesses are also allowed to expand into their parking lots.  

Telluride

Colorado Avenue will be reduced to one lane to give business more space, starting June 1. 

Still Thinking About It 

Aspen

A city survey showed public support for closing some streets and otherwise expanding outdoor dining. A plan will go to the town council June 1.

Colorado Springs

The city is exploring closing one block of Tejon Street in downtown. 

Crested Butte

The town council is considering a proposal that would close a lane of Elk Street, Crested Butte’s main drag. Town staff say it’s meant to give businesses more space, not to create a new pedestrian mall. 

Denver

Colorado’s capital city closed eight segments of streets last month for recreational purposes, and advocates are pushing for them to stay closed permanently. Meanwhile, the Downtown Denver Partnership has asked the city to close streets in nine commercial corridors — many of which are old street-car hubs — to give businesses more space. 

The city is also taking applications for businesses that want to expand into their parking lots or other adjacent outdoor spaces. As of Wednesday, one application has been approved.

Durango

Main Avenue in downtown would partially close under a proposal.

Littleton

A city proposal under consideration now would close Main Street on certain days and evenings through Labor Day.

Longmont

The city is studying ways to give businesses more outdoor space, which could include occasionally closing Main Street.