Rethinking the Dust Bowl

1830 - 1941

This environmental history research project, funded by the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, explored the chronology and geography of wind erosion on the southern plains before the famous 1930s Dust Bowl.  Led by Dr. Geoff Cunfer and employing several graduate students in the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of History, the project combed through explorers’ journals, military fort weather records, farmer diaries, small-town newspapers, and government reports for references to dust storms that happened during the century before 1930.  Researchers located descriptions of over 600 dust storms in the region, most before any significant portion of the land had been plowed for crops.

Another major undertaking of the project was to digitize a unique set of maps created by the U.S. government in the midst of the 1930s Dust Bowl.  The Soil Conservation Survey’s 1936-1937 “Reconnaissance Survey of the Southern Great Plains Wind-Erosion Area” provided detailed information at the farm level about soil type, slope, land use, and amount of wind erosion.  Digitizing these unique maps makes it possible to disaggregate the information, overlay it with other maps, and better understand the causes and consequences of drifting soil. The maps cover 26 counties in Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, and Kansas.  The resulting GIS includes 14,000 land use polygons representing 42,000 square miles in the heart of the Dust Bowl.