Using computer modeling, NASA has determined that the devastating Dust Bowl in the American Southwest during the 1930s, which helped to set off the Great Depression, was caused by some of the same forces that are driving global warming today.

NASA’s computer model shows that a combination of colder-than-normal water in the tropical Pacific and warmer tropical Atlantic temperatures combined to create the drought conditions. This means that, despite improved farming techniques, it could happen again. NASA’s Siegfried Schubert says, “We know the computer matches well with what’s gone on the past few decades, but we want to test it against other well-documented events from the past, like the Dust Bowl drought, to confirm it against real-world events.”

The Dust Bowl hit Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico the hardest. “The 1930s drought was the major climatic event in the nation’s history,” Schubert says. From 1931 through 1939, warm temperatures in the Atlantic produced a “double-whammy for the people in the Plains states. Just beginning to understand what occurred is really critical to understanding future droughts and the links to global climate change issues we’re experiencing today.

“There is a persistent low-level jet stream that moves west across the Gulf of Mexico that is almost always there. It pumps water vapor from the tropics up into the center of the country. But the model shows that jet stream weakened and moved farther south than normal, and this made the drought much worse in the summer and fall months.

“It’s hard to say if another Dust Bowl-scale drought could occur again in the near future, both because land use has changed, but also because the average surface temperatures in both the Atlantic and Pacific are higher than they have ever been since we started keeping records.”

Whether it will create a new dust bowl remains to be seen, but scientists say that only a huge spring snow storm can save the West from worst drought in 1,400 years. Henry Brean writes that without more snow?a LOT more?this will be the fifth straight year of below-average precipitation in the Colorado River Basin.

“Historically, you would expect to have 100% of your snow pack (for the year) by April 1,” says Bob Walsh of the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. “It’s not unusual to get additional snowfall into April, but I don’t think anybody anticipates a large enough snowfall to significantly impact reservoir levels.”

It doesn’t just affect Colorado. Lake Mead, which provides the Las Vegas Valley with about 90% of its water, is 40% lower than normal. Water authority spokesman J.C. Davis says, “It’s going to be several years before we can begin to recover from this. We’re in this drought for a long time to come.”

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