Reflections on Drought, the Dust Bowl, and the Ghosts of Tom Joad

2020-06-29 20:56:45.000 – Nate Iannuccillo, Weather Observer/Education Specialist


With Mt Washington currently 5.12” shy of its average monthly rainfall for the month of June in spite of significant rains the past couple days (check out our data for the month of June here), much of the state of New Hampshire has been experiencing moderate drought over the course of the past couple months, and as a result, I spent my first week on the summit reflecting on this climatological state as it pertains to human culture and development across the globe.
us drought monitor new hampshire june 23 2020
Often times, it seems to me that we tend to associate drought with particularly dry, arid climates, and regions that already experience relative scarcity of water resources. Of course, drought can be experienced in areas with an abundance of water resources, but when drought hits already dry regions, the effects are often severe, and sometimes catastrophic.
Drought is one of the oldest documented climatic events, and it appears in myth and legend in many ancient civilizations. Water shortages have proved significant to human populations since the birth of agriculture, and even before that, influencing the patterns of hunter-gatherer societies. Different cultures have responded in diverse ways to historic dry spells, with techniques ranging from the modification of agricultural practices, to elaborate rituals appealing to the supernatural.
As previously mentioned, the human effects of drought can be both subtle and dramatic, and effects vary in consequence throughout different regions. Here in New Hampshire, drought still affects us, but with somewhat subtler consequences compared to many of the famous dry spells in the Western United States.
For a list of potential impacts on the state of New Hampshire, I encourage the use of the information supplied by the United States Drought Monitor which can be seen by clicking: HERE

For me, perhaps the most famous dry spell that comes to mind is the famous dust bowl era of the 1930s. Enhanced by poor agricultural practices, multiple years of drought led to dust storms, destruction of agriculture, and an estimated 500,000 displaced Americans. Coinciding with the great depression, the dust bowl has seemingly imprinted itself on the American consciousness, eventually perpetuating itself into the cultural sphere, where it became immortalized in the novels of John Steinbeck, the songs of Woody Guthrie, and the photographs of Dorothea Lange.
dorothea lange migrant motherPerhaps Dorothea Lange’s most famous photo taken during the American dust bowl
Now, as I glance at the most recent map put out by the United States Drought Monitor, I check the region intersected by the states of New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado, and I can’t help but notice that the states that once endured the droughts of the dust bowl era are the same ones negotiating a severe drought right now.

us drought monitor june 23 2020

 For me, it is striking to realize that certain areas are disproportionately prone to the destructive effects of severe drought. When John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, amongst other novels set in this era, it seemed to me that he was telling the story of a group of people living on the margin, one where the climate and the structured economy were pitted against them. As I thought more about the history of drought, I realized that extreme events in weather and climate of course affect different groups of people disproportionately.
As we move forward in time, I can’t help but wonder about the impacts of these types of phenomena and what regions are more prone to climatic events in a dynamic world. After perusing the IPCC special report on global warming of 1.5°C , long term precipitation trends in lieu of climate change are hardly straightforward, and effects vary regionally.

In brief, the frequency and intensity of drought is expected to mitigate in certain areas, and intensify in others.
Mulling over these potential impacts encourages me in my work at the Mount Washington Observatory, and even if it may be a small contribution to the fields of climatology and meteorology, I know that it exists within the struggle for survival in harsh climates coupled and the desire to understand and make sense of the place that we call Earth.


Nate Iannuccillo, Weather Observer/Education Specialist

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