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Atmosphere, Climate, Hydrosphere, Lithosphere, Weather



"... That old dust mite killed my wheat, boys,
But it can't kill me, Lord, and it can't kill me.
I have weathered many a dust storm,
But it can't get me, boys, and it can't kill me.

That old dust storm but it blowed my barn down,
But it can't blow me down, and it can't blow me down.
That old wind might blow this world down,
But it can't blow me down, it can't kill me…"
From Dust Bowl Refuge by Woodie Guthrie

This story begins in 1862 when Congress passed the Homestead Act which provided for a transfer of 160 acres of unoccupied public land to each homesteader for a nominal sum or for $1.25 per acre after six months of residence on the land. Six months later the Railroad Act was passed. The announcement of "free land" was a call for the landless citizens, freed slaves and hundreds of thousands of European immigrants to flood the area. By 1869 a transcontinental railroad stretched across the frontier. The emerging rail lines made access to the public lands easier, and provided a method of bringing manufactured goods to the area. Hundreds of pioneers moved into the region building towns and schools. Not realizing the risk they were taking, these people moved into an area which was a grassland with few trees, minimal rainfall, and scarce other vegetation. Many of the homesteaders left the region before they fulfilled the requirements of their claim. In the 30 year period ending in 1900, more than two million immigrants moved into the region. For years, a very productive agricultural economy was created.

As farming increased, many hundreds of acres of land were plowed under. Hail, windstorms, prairie fires, winter blizzards and locusts were soon the perils of the homesteaders. In the 1930's a decade of drought spread across the region. The area came to be known as the Dust Bowl . The weather conditions led to severe dust storms called "Black Blizzards" and "Black Rollers," the most memorable was named Black Sunday, which sent dust from the Plains to New England and Washington DC.

On Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, a wall of blowing sand hit the eastern Oklahoma panhandle around 4 PM. As one witness described the event: "...a great black bank rolled in out of the northeast, and in a twinkling when it struck Liberal, plunged everything into inky blackness, worse than that on any midnight, when there is at least some starlight and outlines of objects can be seen. When the storm struck it was impossible to see one's hand before his face even two inches away. And it was several minutes before any trace of daylight whatsoever returned." Liberal News, April 15, 1935. Much of the Black Sunday dust was finally deposited in the Atlantic Ocean.

One outcome of the Dust Bowl was a mass exodus from the Plains. Hundreds of thousands of Dust Bowl refugees headed for California and other states. Often called "Okies," because many were from Oklahoma, they found economic conditions in their new states difficult due to the Great Depression. In the years since the Dust Bowl, the plains states would recover, but writers such as Timothy Egan in the Worst Hard Times would caution those who might have forgotten these difficult lessons. For example, Egan discusses current overuse of the Ogallala Aquifer. Others, such as NASA climate scientists, suggest that climate variability may have played a big role in what took place in the Plains states during the 30s. In addition, historian Daniel Worster cautions that climate change could turn the Plains into a disaster area and is of the opinion that government and economic policies only add to the danger.



Recent articles suggest that a new dust bowl is likely to form in the southwest Unites States, an area of limited water resources. Your Earth system analysis of the impact of climate change on this area will help the region adapt if necessary.


A major part of the Dust Bowl story concerns the Ogalalla Aquifer, an underground water source that covers 10,000 square miles from Texas to the Dakotas. Water from the Ogallala irrigates one fifth of all U.S. cropland. Yet, there are increasing signs that this vital resource may be losing in its ability to sustain agriculture at its present levels. Your team has been working with NASA satellite missions to quantify changes in the water resources in the Dust Bowl region. Your work will assist in developing policy concerning this most precious resource.

Note: The NASA GRACE and TRMM missions can be useful in analyzing water issues. Instructions on accessing this data are here.


Date: 9/20/2011

Scenario Images:

Black Sunday
A dust storm approaches Stratford, Texas. Photo courtesy of NOAA Photo Library, George E. Marsh album.

Abnormal Sea Surfact Temperatures and the Dust Bowl
Using historic data collected over the past century, NASA Goddard has run a series of models that suggest the Dust Bowl's drought was the result of changes in sea surface temperatures.

The OgalallaAquifer
Ninety-five percent of the United States' fresh water is underground. One crucial source is a huge underground reservoir, the 800-mile Ogallala aquifer which stretches from Texas to South Dakota and waters one fifth of US irrigated land.
(Image from BBC News)



Drier Conditions Projected to Accelerate Dust Storms in the Southwest (Cycle A)
A recent USGS release indicated that drier conditions in the SW will accelerate dust storms there.


Drought Research from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (Cycle A)
[The Dust Bowl] was the combination of drought and poor land use practice that created the environmental disaster.


Dust Bowl to the Sahel (Cycle A)
"A severe drought combined with poor soil conservation practices can lead to extreme topsoil erosion, with devastating effects on the land."


Enduring Impact of the American Dust Bowl (Cycle A)
"This paper analyzes the aftermath of large and permanent soil erosion during the 1930's that became widely known as the American Dust Bowl.""


Pollution Can Convert Iron to Support Phytoplankton Growth (Cycle A)
"The work provides new insight into the role that ocean fertility plays in the complex cycle involving carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in global warming..."


The Ecology of Dust (Cycle A)
"Wind erosion and associated dust emissions play a fundamental role in many ecological processes and provide important biogeochemical connectivity at scales from individual plants up to the entire globe."


Drier Conditions Projected to Accelerate dust Storms in the southwest (Cycle B)
This abstract from the USGS highlights current research in the desert southwest related to accelerated dust storms. Twenty years of study in the area show a decline in the perennial grass cover in grasslands with increasing mean average cover. See also: Dust Bowl 2.0 from the Scientific American.
Access to the full text is at a cost from the National Academy of Science. Complete information is available at the site.


Lessons from the Dust Bowl (Cycle B)
"Dirty Thirties" Offer Valuable Lessons in Conservation, Stewardship
by Jennifer Wemhoff, The Groundwater Foundation


NASA Simulation of Global Wind Patterns for the 1930's (Cycle B)
Siegfried Schubert of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., and colleagues used a computer model developed with modern-era satellite data to look at the climate over the past 100 years. The study found cooler than normal tropical Pacific Ocean surface temperatures combined with warmer tropical Atlantic Ocean temperatures to create conditions in the atmosphere that turned America's breadbasket into a dust bowl from 1931 to 1939.


The Ogallala Aquifer (Cycle B)
The Ogallala Aquifer (also known as the High Plains Aquifer) is now facing declining water levels and deteriorating water quality.


The Texas Dust Bowl In Historical Perspective (Cycle B)
"Cyclical drought and farming of marginally productive acreage was exacerbated by a lack of soil conservation methods."


Stinging Dust and Forgotten Lives: The Dust Bowl (Cycle C)
A well done 37 minute video on the Dust Bowl experience.


Surviving the Dust Bowl (Cycle C)
The story of the farmers who came to the Southern Plains of Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Kansas dreaming of prosperity, and lived through ten years of drought, dust, disease and death. A PBS Video. See also Dust Bowl History.


The Worst Hard Times (Cycle C)
The Worst Hard Times by Timothy Egan tells the story of the Dust Bowl and what might happen in the future. This is an insightful and compelling read.


Sample Investigations:


Dust for Kids from My NASA Data (Cycle A)
To demonstrate and explain the sources, transport and hazards of dust in the atmosphere. Ages 6-10.
Difficulty: beginner


Dust Storms, a lesson from My NASA DATA. (Cycle A)
"Dust storms can begin anywhere the wind blows and there is exposed soil or sand. Wind can blow the dust across a football field--or an entire ocean!" Ages 11 to adult.
Difficulty: beginner


K-12 Teaching Resources and Activities (by Dr. Dirt) (Cycle A)
"These resources have been developed primarily for K-8
teachers and students. Hands-on, exploratory learning
activities based on methods of scientific inquiry will
encourage interest in science, soil, engineering, agriculture,
and natural resources."
Difficulty: beginner


Out of the dust: Visions of the Dust Bowl History (Cycle B)
From the Library of Congress: "Using Karen Hesse's Newbery Award-winning Out of the Dust as an introduction to this aspect of the Great Depression, students have the opportunity to identify with the personal experiences of youth in the 1930s."
Difficulty: beginner


Wind Patterns and Tropical Cyclones (Cycle B)
This is an interactive site which helps understand the movement of the wind belts of the earth. It also shows how high and low pressure systems control the weather patterns of the world.
This site requires registering to enter, but the process is very easy and takes but a few seconds to do.
Difficulty: beginner


Woody Guthrie" Elementary School Causes of the Dust Bowl (Cycle B)
The Woody Guthrie Foundation has worked with educators to develop curricula to bring Woody Guthrie and primary source documents from the Archives into the classroom.

Difficulty: beginner


Causes of the Dust Bowl (Cycle C)
From the Woody Guthrie Web site. "We have a tendency to blame the dust bowl on natural causes, overlooking the role of humanity. What are the causes of the dust bowl? Can it happen again?"
Difficulty: beginner


Drought Resources (Cycle C)
Several short videos on the Dust Bowl.
Difficulty: beginner


Dust Bowl Days (Cycle C)
The lessons are designed for grades 3-5, and they provide some excellent visuals and resources to understand the impact on people and the land resulting from the Dust Bowl.
Difficulty: beginner




  • Science
    National Science Education Standards - Science Content Standards The science content standards outline what students should know, understand, and be able to do in the natural sciences over the course of K-12 education.
      The understandings and abilities associated with the following concepts and processes need to be developed throughout a student's educational experiences:
      • Constancy, change, and measurement
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Physical Science (Std B)
        • Properties and changes of properties in matter
      • Life Science (Std C)
        • Structure and function in living systems
        • Populations and ecosystems
      • Science and Technology (Std E)
        • Understanding about science and technology
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Populations, resources, and environments
        • Natural hazards
        • Risks and benefits
      • Science as Inquiry (Std A)
        • Abilities necessary to do scientific inquiry
        • Understanding about scientific inquiry
      • Life Science (Std C)
        • Matter, energy, and organization in living systems
      • Earth and Space Science (Std D)
        • Energy in the earth system
        • Geochemical cycles
      • Science and Technology (Std E)
        • Understanding about science and technology
      • Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (Std F)
        • Natural resources
        • Environmental quality
        • Natural and human-induced hazards
  • Mathematics
    Principles and Standards for School Mathematics, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), 2000 This set of Standards proposes the mathematics concepts that all students should have the opportunity to learn. Each of these ten Standards applies across all grades, prekindergarten through grade 12. Even though each of these ten Standards applies to all grades, emphases and expectations will vary both within and between the grade bands (K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12). For instance, the emphasis on number is greatest in prekindergarten through grade 2, and by grades 9-12, number receives less instructional attention. Also the total time for mathematical instruction will be divided differently according to particular needs in each grade band - for example, in the middle grades, the majority of instructional time would address algebra and geometry.
      Mathematics instructional programs should foster the development of number and operation sense so that all students—
      • understand numbers, ways of representing numbers, relationships among numbers, and number systems;
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to patterns, functions, symbols, and models so that all students—
      • understand various types of patterns and functional relationships;
      • use symbolic forms to represent and analyze mathematical situations and structures;
      • use mathematical models and analyze change in both real and abstract contexts.
      Mathematics instructional programs should include attention to data analysis, statistics, and probability so that all students—
      • pose questions and collect, organize, and represent data to answer those questions;
      • interpret data using methods of exploratory data analysis;
      • develop and evaluate inferences, predictions, and arguments that are based on data;
      Mathematics instructional programs should focus on solving problems as part of understanding mathematics so that all students—
      • build new mathematical knowledge through their work with problems;
      • develop a disposition to formulate, represent, abstract, and generalize in situations within and outside mathematics;
      • apply a wide variety of strategies to solve problems and adapt the strategies to new situations;
      • monitor and reflect on their mathematical thinking in solving problems.
      Mathematics instructional programs should use communication to foster understanding of mathematics so that all students—
      • organize and consolidate their mathematical thinking to communicate with others;
      • express mathematical ideas coherently and clearly to peers, teachers, and others;
      Mathematics instructional programs should emphasize mathematical representations to foster understanding of mathematics so that all students—
      • create and use representations to organize, record, and communicate mathematical ideas;
  • Geography
    Geography for Life: National Geography Standards, 1994
      Geography studies the relationships between people, places, and environments by mapping information about them into a spatial context. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to use maps and other geographic representations, tools and technologies to acquire, process, and report information from a spatial perspective
      • How to use mental maps to organize information about people, places, and environments in a spatial context
      The identities and lives of individuals and people are rooted in particular places and in those human constructs called regions. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The physical and human characteristics of places
      • That people create regions to interpret Earth’s complexity
      Physical processes shape Earth’s surface and interact with plant and animal life to create, sustain, and modify ecosystems. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The physical processes that shape the patterns of Earth’s surface
      People are central to geography in that human activities help shape Earth’s surface, human settlements and structures are part of Earth’s surface, and humans compete for control of Earth’s surface. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • The patterns and networks of economic interdependence on Earth’s surface
      • The processes, patterns, and functions of human settlement
      The physical environment is modified by human activities, largely as a consequence of the ways in which human societies value and use Earth’s natural resources, and human activities are also influenced by Earth’s physical features and processes. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How human actions modify the physical environment
      • How physical systems affect human systems
      • The changes that occur in the meaning, use, distribution, and importance of resources
      Knowledge of geography enables people to develop an understanding of the relationships between people, places, and environments over time — that is, of Earth as it was, is, and might be. The geographically informed person knows and understands:
      • How to apply geography to interpret the past
      • How to apply geography to interpret the present and plan for the future
  • Technology
    The International Society for Technology Education From and
      • Students use technology tools to enhance learning, increase productivity, and promote creativity.
      • Students use productivity tools to collaborate in constructing technology-enhanced models, prepare publications, and produce other creative works.
      • Students use telecommunications to collaborate, publish, and interact with peers, experts, and other audiences.
      • Students use a variety of media and formats to communicate information and ideas effectively to multiple audiences.
      • Students use technology to locate, evaluate, and collect information from a variety of sources.
      • Students use technology tools to process data and report results.
      • Students use technology resources for solving problems and making informed decisions.
      • Students employ technology in the development of strategies for solving problems in the real world.
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