LUBBOCK, Texas — The sky turns pink or brown as the dust clouds billow and swirl on the Southern Plains, leaving those caught outdoors with grit on their teeth and in their eyes, much like the days of the Dust Bowl.
But due to the drought conditions that have been a constant presence since 2011, some parts of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles, northeastern New Mexico and southeastern Colorado are drier now than they were during the infamous dry spell of the 1930s.
While experts say the possibility of another Dust Bowl is unlikely because of modern irrigation and farming techniques enacted afterward that are aimed at holding soil in place, greater erosion in recent years has resulted in an increasing number of dust storms, including one last month that lasted three days in Lubbock, Texas.
The dust storms are an indirect result of the drought, according to Tom Gill, a geology professor at the University of Texas-El Paso who has studied the phenomenon for years.
“The drought leads to reduced land cover and making it far more difficult to keep the soil anchored to the ground,” he said. “To get a real strong dust storm you need a combination of barren land and strong winds,” Gill said.
In the 1930s, farmers plowed up 100 million acres, and billions of tons of topsoil blew away, filling the skies across five states with soil. Scientists with the federal government’s Soil Conservation Service — now the Natural Resources Conservation Service — stepped in after the man-made ecological disaster and tried to stem erosion.
Progress was slow initially, but since the 1980s, more U.S. farmers have moved to soil conservation practices, minimizing the disturbance of the soil’s surface and making it less likely to take flight in high winds. The results are telling: In 1982, more than 3 billion tons of soil nationwide were lost to wind and water erosion; that dropped to 1.72 billion tons in 2010, according to data from the conservation service