The 2012 drought and its timing during the Great Recession surprised people, while reminding others of the "Dirty Thirties" and other significant U.S. droughts, says a Purdue University agricultural historian.
"The seriousness of this drought caught people off guard, and people have forgotten how bad it can be," says R. Douglas Hurt, a professor and head of the Department of History who specializes in American agricultural history, especially in the West and Midwest. "This is a reminder that droughts are cyclical - just think about the 1930s, '50s, '80s and now today. It is going to happen again, and with climate change playing a role, it is important for farmers, policymakers, and social and physical scientists to take a page from history and have contingency plans to meet national needs."
For example, the 1950s drought, which covered a larger area, was not as severe as the 1930s because after that decade's Dust Bowl, American farmers implemented soil conservation practices. The devastation in the 1930s also inspired government programs that served as a safety net in the 1950s, says Hurt, author of "The Dust Bowl: An Agricultural and Social History." Improved farming practices continue today with drought-resistant crops and better soil conservation techniques, but the current drought is a reminder of the damage that can be done, Hurt says.
"People frequently ask if the Dust Bowl can happen again, and while the answer is yes, it should not happen again given the advances in agricultural science and technology," he says. "But we must not forget what we've learned from the past."
Hurt also is the author of "The Big Empty: The Great Plains in the Twentieth Century," "Problems of Plenty: The American Farmer in the Twentieth Century," "American Agriculture: A Brief History," "American Farms: Exploring Their History," "American Farm Tools from Hand-Power to Steam-Power," "Agriculture Technology in the Twentieth Century" and "The Great Plains during World War II."