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Surprising discovery: U.S. farming system as vulnerable as in 1930s

Staff Writer |
Technological advances wouldn’t protect US agriculture from a drought on the scale of the legendary Dust Bowl crisis of the 1930s, research shows.

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The study, published in Nature Plants, simulated the effect of extreme weather from the Dust Bowl era on today’s maize, soy, and wheat crops.

Authors Michael Glotter and Joshua Elliott of the Center for Robust Decision Making on Climate and Energy Policy at the University of Chicago’s Computation Institute, examined whether modern agricultural innovations would protect against history repeating itself under similar conditions.

“We expected to find the system much more resilient because 30 percent of production is now irrigated in the United States, and because we’ve abandoned corn production in more severely drought-stricken places such as Oklahoma and west Texas,” says Elliott, a fellow and research scientist at the center and the Computation Institute.

“But we found the opposite: The system was just as sensitive to drought and heat as it was in the 1930s.”

The severe damage of the Dust Bowl was caused by three distinct droughts in quick succession, occurring in 1930-31, 1933-34, and 1936.

From 1933 to 1939, wheat yields declined by double-digit percentages, reaching a peak loss of 32 percent in 1933.

The economic and societal consequences were vast, eroding land value throughout the Great Plains states and displacing millions of people.


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