The Dust Bowl. It was one of the worst droughts to ever impact North America. But, how big was it?

A recent study finds the 1934 drought was the biggest in scale and impact to affect North America in the last 1,000 years.

“We noticed that 1934 really stuck out as not only the worst drought but far outside the normal range of what we see in the record,” said Benjamin Cook, an environmental scientist working at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City.

The study also found a connection between the drought affecting portions of the West Coast today, and the Dust Bowl from the 1930s.

Both droughts featured a prominent high pressure ridge over the West Coast. This ridge causes storm systems to be pushed north of California. A similar type of ridge was present during the winter of 1933-1934.

It wasn’t just the weather that contributed to the 1930s drought. We also played a role. Agricultural practices at the time helped fuel dust storms, which exacerbated the drought.

Areas located downwind from the massive dust storms were impacted the most. States, including Nebraska and Kansas, saw the skies fill with dust which led to even drier conditions.

Today, California is suffering from a three-year drought that will cost the state more than $2 billion this year. Besides detailing the monetary damages to California, the report also says the drought is likely to continue through next year.

California is in a devastating drought, but the dust storms of the 1930s are unlikely to happen this go around. “Now we have the (Natural Resources Conservation Service), which helps to limit wind erosion and dust storm erosion,” says Cook.

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“They can reduce the chance of a 1934 event occurring again.”

Experts from the Natural Resources Conservation Service help farmers by designing conservation plans resulting in better soil, even during extreme droughts.

Image credit: NOAA, George E. Marsh Album

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