August 11, and that was it.

The National Weather Service defines "summer," for record-keeping purposes, as June, July and August. In the summer of 2011, there was exactly one day when the temperature did not reach 90 degrees Fahrenheit at Will Rogers World Airport, and that was the 11th of August, a day on which 0.44 inch of rain fell. How much cooling effect did this have? Apparently zero: the next day it hit 99, despite an additional 0.62 inch.

On the other hand, we were lucky. We managed 6.3 inches of rain for those three months, which was almost 60 percent of normal. Hobart, down in the southwestern part of the state, got less than an inch and a half. Still, the weekly US Drought Monitor, which details Moderate, Severe, and Extreme drought, had to go into a fourth classification — Exceptional — to describe the western two-thirds of Oklahoma. Marginal improvements are expected this fall over the northern half of the state, but to the south, and in Texas, things aren't going to get better any time soon.

The first Dust Bowl began at the end of an unusually wet period, something we haven't had of late, and a couple of dry years (1930-31) brought on soil erosion, which got worse as the rains stayed away. The Roosevelt administration, starting in 1933, came up with some reasonable responses: a program to address erosion, and a temporary relief program, in which the government bought up cattle herds for a bit more than the pitiful sums they were bringing on the open market. Still, things got worse in the middle of the decade, with massive dust storms in 1935-1936, and in the summer of '36, the double whammy of high heat and low rainfall. (Oklahoma City, just off the edge of the Bowl, posted its fourth-hottest summer in '36 — three degrees cooler than 2011, however — and a meager half-inch of rain in those three months.)

Washington kept trying things. Roosevelt directed the Civilian Conservation Corps to plant trees in the Bowl to help hold the soil in place, and stepped up a campaign to get farmers to adopt farming techniques that conserved the soil. Things began to improve, slowly, but they didn't really turn around until 1940, after a nice, wet fall of '39. By then, two and a half million people had had enough, and migrated out of the region. The 1940 Census showed a 2.5-percent decrease in the population of Oklahoma; it would continue to decline through 1950.

Are we on the verge of a second Dust Bowl? I have my doubts. Some things we can't do anything about: the weather here has always been perverse, and presumably always will be. We have, however, learned how to take better care of what topsoil remains. (For all the flapdoodle about how horrible it is to graze livestock, it's a lot easier on the soil than most of the cash crops.) On the downside, really good (or, for that matter, really bad) irrigation inevitably leads to drawing down the state's aquifers, which don't hold anywhere near as much groundwater as they used to, and recharging them more than trivially takes a fair amount of rain over a long period of time.

And there's something of the stoic in the Oklahoma character, defined by boom and bust, ebb and flow, fry and freeze. As Woody Guthrie once sang: "That old wind might blow this world down / But it can't blow me down / It can't kill me." There's a lot to be said for not dying.

The Vent

#740
  6 September 2011

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