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WX HISTORY SPECIAL: Outlining the Dust Bowl


HumanFrom the second half of the 19th century, Americans began to settle on the Great Plains of America. Nebraska’s population exploded from fewer than 100,000 in 1860 to over 1 million in 1890. Although settlement was less than one directed southwest, population in the region traditionally known as the dust bowl, i.e. western KS and Panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas, the region has nonetheless experienced significant population growth. While there wasn’t much visually, those who moved into the heartland were drawn to the promises of agricultural riches in the region.


The region in brown is the primary location of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s

Those dreams came true for some in 1914 when World War I broke out in Europe. Over the next few years, European crops failed as fields were destroyed in the conflict. Needing another source of grain, Europe turned to the United States for agricultural aid. Farmers on the Great Plains began to cultivate the land at unprecedented rates to keep up with demand. This 1910s grain boom sowed the seeds for disaster along the way. Many farmers have implemented deep plowing methods on their fields, which stripped away much of the native grasses and left behind a layer of topsoil. Grass losses have increased soil erosion, meaning that in times of drought parched soil could be blown away by the wind. To keep up with the increased demand, farmers too started ignoring soil conservation practices and moved towards poorer farmland to grow crops. All of this would eventually lead to more soil erosion, crop failures, and widespread suffering as drought strikes.


Increasing mechanization of agriculture, outdated practices and using poor fields would have contributed to the dust when droughts struck.

EconomicIn the 1920s, the golden years of grain demand began to wane as warfare ended in Europe. Prices began to fall as demand for grain declined and farms began to feel the pinch. Many farms were subsidized by the federal government during the war years, allowing many farms to purchase farm equipment to keep up with demand, but once the subsidies ended, the debt began to mount for many farms. Banks soon foreclosed on farms in the lowlands to those who couldn’t pay their debts. Farmers are often said to have felt the Great Depression before the Great Depression began. The stock market crash of 1929 led to the Great Depression. As people and governments grappled with the severity of the depression, the price of wheat soared while demand plummeted to an all-time low.

EnvironmentalThe great plains environment can be divided into two regions based on its environment. The eastern Great Plains is wetter and wetter, with eastern Nebraska seeing an average of nearly 30″ of precipitation annually. In contrast to the western Great Plains, which contain a semi-arid climate, where less than 20″ of rainfall per year waterfalls. With numbers like that, it was imperative that soil erosion didn’t occur, as the region frequently experiences dry spells. Settlers at the time believed their agricultural practices might bring rain, and the generally wet 1920s were a sign of that.

Then came the dry season, the 1930s would be one of the driest periods in the history of the Great Plains. For Omaha, only 1931 and 1932 had above-average rainfall. 1934 was the driest year in Omaha with only 14.9 inches of rain. While droughts were not a constant feature of the 1930s, they hit hard in 1930-1931, 1934, 1936, and 1939-1940. deep plowing was now being picked up by the constant wind, with the fine particles of dust being deposited over thousands of square miles.


A graph of Omaha’s rainfall in the 1930s, many years being exceptionally dry being the last 10 years driest on record.


Although the core of the dust storm occurred in southwest Nebraska, the state has not yet been able to escape the “black blizzards” as they were called. While the large dust clouds that swept across the state are the most memorable, the real impact was the daily dust clouds that swept across the state. Nearly every day, any gust of wind sent a cloud of dust into the air and into the mouths of anyone who breathed when it came. Dust managed to get into any crevice, even in securely constructed houses. Food and drink tasted of dust, there were days when the sun was dulled to a brown cast. This was the daily life of many in Nebraska and the rest of the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl.


Dust covering a farm in South Dakota in 1936

Despite the daily dust events, there were great dust storms that blackened the sky, forced entire cities to seek shelter, and left everything in its path in a layer of dust. The first of three major dust storms to hit Nebraska was on November 11, 1933, when a major dust storm originated in South Dakota and spread southeast into Nebraska. The folks of Omaha awoke the next morning to a layer of dust on everything, even inside their homes, while winds sometimes reached over 50 mph. The second major dust storm began on May 11, 1934, as dust from Texas to Nebraska collected and swept over much of the eastern United States. Dust was covered in New York City, and even ships in the Atlantic Ocean reported dusty places a far cry from the Great Plains.

By far the largest and most infamous dust storm of the entire Dust Bowl years occurred on April 14, 1935, a dust storm so massive it was considered Black Sunday. The dust started with a cold front moving south from the Dakota, gathering dust first in drought-stricken regions of Nebraska. Hastings was covered in a layer of dust as 50 mph winds drove dust into Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas. The dust cloud was so large that it completely blocked the sun in many places as it passed. The dust storm lasted for several hours, visibility dropped to zero, sometimes you couldn’t even see your hand in front of your face. Black Sunday was the cornerstone of the dust storm: “Everyone remembered where they were on Black Sunday. For people on the Southern Plains, it was one of those defining experiences, like Pearl Harbor or the Kennedy assassination.” University of Iowa history professor Pamela Riney-Kherberg said in an interview on Black Sunday.

National Archives

The dust cloud approaches a Texas city, the cloud hung over the city for several hours.

From 1936 to 1940, dust storms continued to plague the region. Many people have experienced rasping discomfort for many years after the rains have come and the dust has settled. Many who lived on the Great Plains fled to other areas, most famously California. The “Okies,” as they were called, have earned a famous legacy in history, perhaps best known in the classic novel “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck.


While the dust may be the best known from the 1930s, Nebraska has faced a variety of extreme weather conditions outside of enduring droughts. Sometimes the rains have come, and when they have come, they have brought with them other grave dangers. The 1930s is also known in Nebraska for these significant events. Many of these briefly outlined events will eventually get full This week in WX history segments dedicated to them, and when they do they will be linked here.

TornadoBefore the major drought set in, 1930 was an extremely active year for tornadoes in Nebraska. On May 1, 1930, an F-4 tornado struck Tekamah destroying over 40 homes and killing 4 people. Five days later, a tornado outbreak brought several central NE tornadoes, one of which narrowly missed the city of Greeley north of Grand Island. Finally, three days later an F-3 tornado struck Minden, south of Kearney. Another F-3 hit Hastings, killing one person.

On May 23, 1933, an F-5 tornado moved north across the Sandy Hills, narrowly missing the small town of Tryon. This large tornado wiped out entire homes. Unfortunately, one home lost six family members to the tornado. This is one of two F-5 tornadoes that hit Nebraska in the 1930s.

The other F-5 occurred on April 26, 1938, when a tornado moved west of Oshkosh. In rural Garden County, the tornado flattened a school as a teacher and several students watched outdoors. Three students were killed when the tornado tore apart the school.


Some of the tornadoes across Nebraska during the 1930s, many more touched down but are not listed here.

1936: Year of extremes1936 proved to be an extreme year for temperatures in Nebraska. It started in late January through February where temperatures didn’t rise above freezing for over a month. Nearly all nightly lows in the second half of January through February were at or below zero in Omaha. 1936 is the coldest February on record for Nebraska.

If frozen nebraschi wanted some relief from the heat by summer, boy did they get it. The summer of 1936 was scorching, with many days in July exceeding 100 degrees. On July 25, 1936, Omaha recorded its hottest temperature ever at 114 degrees. This record still stands today. 1936 was the hottest July on record in Nebraska, as well as being the hottest August 2nd.

The Republican River FloodSometimes, when the rain came, they did it with unprecedented frequency. This was the case on May 30, 1935, when more than 1 foot of rain fell in eastern Colorado and southwestern Nebraska. Because the bone-dry soil couldn’t absorb water that fast, most of it flowed into the Republican River. Within hours the usually calm river that straddles the Nebraska-Kansas line became a raging torrent more than a mile wide as it swept away everything in its path. To this day, it remains one of the deadliest natural disasters in Nebraska state history with 113 deaths.


The usually tame Republican River flooded in 1935 killing over 100 people.


  • The worst difficult moment by Timothy Egan
  • DUST STORM, NOVEMBER 1933 TO MAY 1934, by W. A. ​​Mattice, Monthly Weather Review, February 1935
  • What happened on Black Sunday? history.com
  • Significant Tornadoes: A Chronology 1690-1991 by Tom Grazulis
  • Palmer’s Drought Severity Index
  • Gentle River Runs Wild: History Nebraska’s 1935 Republican River Flood

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