Thursday, November 15

"Dust Bowl:" New Ken Burns documentary on 1930s disaster finds echoes in 2012 drought

From this report on the Burns documentary, at the least it looks to be an important contribution to oral histories of the United States:
Burns Captures Dust Bowl Hardships in Documentary
by Sean Breslin
The Weather Channel
November 14, 2012

For Dust Bowl survivors like 88-year-old Don Wells, the scenes of devastation will never leave his mind, yet they are still difficult to describe.

Let me tell you how it was -- I don't care who describes that to you, nobody can tell it any worse than what it was," he said. "No one exaggerates it. There was no way to for it to be exaggerated. It was that bad."

Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns accepted the challenge, painting a picture of the debilitating Dust Bowl. In his documentary, "The Dust Bowl," Burns speaks to residents of the Heartland who saw it firsthand, like Wells, who grew up in Cimarron County, Okla. and still lives there today.

The film will premiere Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 8 p.m. on PBS.

"We're blissfully unaware of the historical events that brought us to this moment," said Burns. "It is just harrowing -- it feels Biblical -- when you deal with the consequences of it. And we are able to find witnesses in their late-80s and 90s who were children back then, and teenagers."

An event surrounded by so much folklore, the Dust Bowl was one of the most crippling natural disasters of the 20th century. Millions of acres of crops were obliterated, thousands of residents were killed and countless budding farmers were chased from their way of life.
Those who endured the hardships of the Dust Bowl continue to age, and eventually their voices will fall silent. But through Burns' new documentary, their stories of a trying time in American history will never be lost.
How do the 1930s disaster and the 2012 drought compare?  This year's drought ranks as the 10th-largest severe drought since 1895, according to a  July 16 report for The Weather Channel titled 2012 Drought Rivals Dust Bowl, which presented new data. An in-depth analysis for The Weather Channel, published July 21, drills down into the question:
The Dust Bowl: 2012 vs. 1930s
By Becky Kellogg

There have been many comparisons between 2012's growing drought and the 1930's Dust Bowl. Both happened in a time of economic downturn. Both are accompanied by stunning images of dry, withered land. Both have sparked deep concerns about the state of the environment and whether our land and lifestyles are sustainable.

However, there are huge differences.

"In terms of percent area of country affected by drought (as measured by the Palmer Drought Index), the 1930's Dust Bowl decade is the worst drought on record by spatial area," says Richard Heim, a meteorologist and drought expert with NOAA's National Climactic Data Center.

The Dust Bowl was not solely caused by drought. It was a complicated conflux of three factors that combined to create a natural disaster of epic proportions: weather, poor farming practices, and lack of environmental understanding. In essence, the Dust Bowl was a perfect storm of a natural disaster.
Kellogg then examines the meteorological, agricultural and social aspects of the disaster. I think the review makes a good introduction to the Burns documentary.

As to whether another perfect storm is on its way, Ken Burns seems to think so. From the Weather Channel report on his documentary, he termed the Dust Bowl "the largest man-made ecological disaster in American history, to that point."

If that's indeed precisely what he said, I think he's on shaky ground when one considers Kellogg's analysis. The Dust Bowl represented a convergence of factors, including weather patterns. However, he's on more solid ground when he looks beyond the Dust Bowl conditions:
Based on his research for the documentary, Burns is convinced the Great Plains are ripe for disaster yet again.

"It's definitely going to happen again, because for most of that time, we'd been drawing on the vast Ogallala Aquifer, which is not sustainable water," he said.

"We're pulling through a million straws, from the sandhills of northern Nebraska down to central Texas -- [on] this glacial melt that's been there.
The misuse of the Ogallala Aquifer, which I discussed some years ago on this blog, is well-documented. As to where the present drought stands:


1 comment:

Madhu said...

It was scary how little rain we got last year. I am used to spring rains and fall rains, and this year there were fall rains but they didn't seem to be that deep soft all-day-long rain I am used to. Gulp!