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Study shows Dust Bowl threat not yet thing of the past
If you caught the Ken Burns series "The Dust Bowl," you learned how economic and weather conditions can combine to produce an ecological disaster.
High wheat prices during World War I prodded farmers, some of them absentee landowners, to break up fragile prairie land which was then left to blow away once the next period of drought set in.
Surely we've moved beyond that today, right?
Yes, we have valuable conservation systems in place today, subsidies to encourage farmers to adopts practices to keep their topsoil on the land.
But a new study by South Dakota State University said some of the same factors that created the Dust Bowl of the 1930s are in play again today.
Christopher Wright and Michael Wimberly of the Geographic Information Science Center of Excellence at SDSU said a recent doubling in commodity prices has spurred the conversion of 1.3 million acres of grassland into corn and soybean cropland over the last five years in South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota and Iowa.
"Historically, comparable grassland conversion rates have not been seen in the Corn Belt since the 1920s and 1930s, the era of rapid mechanization of U.S. agriculture," the authors wrote.
High prices resulting in a large part by demand for biofuel feedstocks, have caused farming on more marginal lands, with high potential for erosion and drought, comparable to deforestation in Brazil, Malaysia and Indonesia, albeit on a smaller area.
Ducks Unlimited is getting into the act, supporting the Protect Our Prairies Act, which would conserve native grasslands by reducing crop insurance for the first four years on newly broken native sod or grasslands.
The study seemed to indicate that farmers are moving away from livestock in places like the Dakotas and Minnesota, while Southwest Nebraska is moving toward more irrigation, probably as cropland is converted from wheat to corn.
The authors say their findings have implications for the region's land productivity, carbon sequestration, biodiversity, flood risk and vulnerability to drought.
If anyone droubt the danger, however, all they have to do is check out Ken Burns' film. http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/dustbowl/