Weather….Then and Now

Published on: 09:48AM Oct 02, 2008
Vance Ehmke

I can’t believe it, but here we are again, locked into one of the worst droughts in the 35 years that I’ve been farming. In fact, this may be the second worst dry spell in my farming career. And the weather history of the central and southern Plains says to expect just that—more of the same and a lot of it.

Some of the things that absolutely fascinate me are historical weather and the prehistoric climate.

In brief, the weather here has varied tremendously. If our house were exactly where it is right now only l0,000 years ago, I could look out in the backyard and see 4 or 5 Clovis Indians stalking a l2 to l4-foot tall mammoth. You know how I know they got him? When they were digging our basement, I found the mammoth’s teeth—3 feet down right where they were supposed to be.

At any rate, the weather then was cool and damp. It was the end of the Ice Age. There were clusters of pine trees growing everywhere.

But as time goes on, the weather continues to evolve. The forest recedes, the grasses expand. Then we’re slammed into the altithermal period centered about 5500 years ago. It was extremely hot and dry during this period that lasted several thousand years. This is when we got our topsoil. Huge windstorms out of the northwest brought in several feet of dust that is now our topsoil. In the process, the mammoth teeth in our backyard were buried—until I found them.

Ultimately the weather evens out to the climate we have today.

But even with our stable climate, there’s still dramatic variation—and a definite rhythm. One of the worst examples in memory of this drought cycle was the Dirty Thirties—a period of time in which the blinding clouds of suffocating dust driven by howling winds brought near midnight blackness to the Plains States.

But as devastating as that 9-year Dust Bowl drought cycle was, it pales in comparison to the really big ones.

The wet and dry cycles of the past l00 years are well documented by weather records. But when you look back over 800 years, you again see the regularity of the droughts every 20 to 25 years.

With the aid of annual growth rings from trees, we can get a fairly accurate view of weather stretching back to the year l200. Tree rings from North Platte, Neb., show what a really severe drought is.

For example, the Dirty Thirties lasted only a fourth as long as the 38-year drought that ran from l276 to l3l3. During the very severe 26-year drought of l539 to l564, the Indians living in western Nebraska and Kansas were driven from the area as it literally turned into a desert.

The great dust storms that followed were so immense they filled entire canyons with wind-blown soil.

The bottom line is that droughts and dust storms are nothing new. It is incorrect to say the Dirty Thirties were caused by farmers who plowed up the grass. It happened because the weather is cyclic. The dryness had nothing to do with agriculture. There was no agriculture here in those earlier years. But because it was dry, the grass died and then the ground blew.

And ladies and gentlemen, those things are in our past—just like they’re in our future.