Topsoil depletion: The next climate change victim

Topsoil depletion: The next climate change victim

Washington : DC : USA | Feb 21, 2013 at 8:58 AM PST
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Climate change impact of soil underestimated: study

In 1939, John Steinbeck published “The Grapes of Wrath,” a novel about the Joad family and their forced migration from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California, the land of opportunity. The catastrophic weather event they were evading in Oklahoma and the Plains will be minuscule compared to what can happen to the farmland of the United States and around the earth if depletion of topsoil continues as a result of climate-change-induced droughts.

Dust Bowl effects are caused by droughts and land mismanagement. The US experienced one of the worst waves of repeated droughts in 1934, 1936 and 1939-40, creating the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma. It was responsible for deaths from the extreme “black blizzard” conditions resulting in the largest migration in US history. By 1940, 2.5 million people had moved out of the Plains states; of those, 200,000 moved to California.

The High Plains experienced drought conditions for as many as eight years. The "Dust Bowl" effect was caused by sustained drought conditions compounded by years of land management practices that left top soil susceptible to the forces of the wind and extreme weather conditions. The soil, depleted of moisture, was lifted by the wind into great clouds of dust and sand which were so thick they concealed the sun for several days at a time. The storms were referred to as “black blizzards” in a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA).

Black blizzards

Drought conditions and years of improper farming techniques in the plains robbed the soil of nutrients, making it sterile eroding the top soil. Even during the drought, farmers continued to plant wheat without rotating crops, rendering the top soil loose and dry. Without water and sufficient plant root systems the topsoil became subject to wind, producing massive dust storms.

The Great Plains were devastated by winds picking up massive amounts of dry soil and deposited it as far away as Washington, D.C.. The insides of houses became layered with dirt. Cars and farm equipment became buried in the deep drifts of soil. Livestock choked to death on the dirt or were buried alive in it. Doctors saw patients who were coughing up lungs full of dirt. Many of them died of complications or suffocation.

Black blizzards blocked out the sun for days causing the temperature to drop by 40 degrees in an hour. Heavy rains, record temperatures, tornadoes and floods wreaked havoc on the land and inhabitants. In 1936, temperatures reached as high as 120 degrees on the plains.

Last year was officially the hottest year ever recorded for the Lower 48 states. Scientists at the NOAA reported weather and temperature data for 2012, finding that the year was both the warmest and the second-most extreme for weather ever recorded for the contiguous US, according to their latest “State of the Climate” report.

The US Climate Extremes Index for 2012 reported a historic drought with above-average wildfires, multiple freak storms leaving millions without electrical power and repeated severe heat waves.

Are droughts a result of climate change?

Iowa’s corn crop was one of the hardest hit last year; nearly three-quarters of the corn producing land experienced severe drought conditions. Considered the worst conditions since 1988, the extended dry weather has cut production and 2012 corn yield has been reduced by 12 percent, forcing higher prices for trading corn.

The rising prices will not be limited to fresh or canned vegetables. American consumers will be paying higher prices for corn and food ingredients made from corn, which is an estimated three-quarters of all grocery products.

Iowa colleges and universities assembled approximately 130 scientists to discuss last year’s drought. In a statement Monday, they said the drought is consistent with warmer climate predicted as part of global climate change and more droughts can be expected.

They further cautioned that due to climate change caused by greenhouse gases, Iowans should brace themselves for more bad weather like the 2012 drought.

Soil scientists in the United States and abroad have warned of worsening food insecurity in the next decades unless pragmatic measures were adopted to enhance soil productivity by minimizing the effects of changing and extreme weather patterns.

Scientists in Africa are reporting potential crop yields from rain-fed agriculture are declining by 50 percent in some African countries, and by 2050 the population increase will add to the stresses of less food being produced. The population will have grown from 770 million in 2005 to 1.5 billion in 2050. They are forecasting inadequate food supplies and potentially massive starvation on their continent.

Dr. Kofi Budu Laryea, an agricultural professor at the University of Ghana, said the current farming practices (slash and burn) involving burning to clear the fields is robbing the land of topsoil, fueling climate change. He was delivering a lecture at a climate change symposium in Accra, organized by the Soil Science Society of Ghana, on the topic: "Possible Impacts of Climate Change on Soil Physical Processes and the Environment.”

Greenhouse emissions causing atmospheric temperatures to increase resulting in glacial melting, sea levels rising and erratic rainfall patterns globally were cited as the effects of climate change. The reduction in vegetation growth leads to less biomass in the soil and organic matter loss resulting in loss of productivity. This is what created land degradation and the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma.

Now even skeptics who have been reluctant to attribute extreme weather to climate change are accepting the reality. Richard Muller, a physicist at the University of California-Berkeley and a longtime skeptic, announced in a New York Times article he is now convinced that global warming is real and that man-made greenhouse gas emissions are responsible.

Seventy percent of Americans believe temperatures are rising, which is up from some 58 percent two years ago.


When the Joad family reached California together with another 200,000 migrants, the welcome was not what they expected. Jobs were scarce, and “Okies” were living in squalid conditions in makeshift camps. But at least they had somewhere to go, and eventually created homes in California and other states away from the Plains.

At the end of the book, Tom Joad says goodbye to Ma Joad, relating Jim Casey’s wisdom:

[Casey said] …one time he went out in the wilderness to find his own soul, an’ he foun’ he didn’t have no soul that was his’n. Says he foun’ he jus’ got a little piece of a great big soul. Says a wilderness ain’t no good, ’cause his little piece of a soul wasn’t no good ’less it was with the rest, an’ was whole.

Steinbeck gave Eastern philosophy’s concept of “wholeness” an American voice. Now it is the responsibility of this generation to make it a global voice.

Climate change cannot be addressed in isolation, and soil depletion is a national and global crisis we cannot escape. Unlike the “Okies,” we have nowhere else to go.


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black blizzard
Black blizzards blocked out the sun for days causing the temperature to drop by 40 degrees in an hour. Heavy rains, record temperatures, tornadoes and floods wrecked havoc on the land and inhabitants.
Dava Castillo is based in Clearlake, California, United States of America, and is an Anchor on Allvoices.
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