How we can avoid another environmental—and agricultural—disaster and save our soil

This year's record-breaking temperatures, extreme heat, flooding and drought has shown us that the planet is in crisis—and the effects of global warming will be felt by everyone as climate change continues to threaten our soil life, the very thing that helps us grow our food.

Decreased rainfall and drought can cause low yields in agricultural fields, resulting in crop failure. Without crops to hold the soil together, leaving the soil bare, we’re watching a slow-motion disaster where supplies slowly increase in price, become exhausted over time, and eventually fizzle out as topsoil continues to deplete.

On the opposite side of the spectrum, extreme rainfalls, which are also on the rise in some areas, can cause a high-speed disaster. Heavy rain prompts soil erosion and run-off, with crops (and damaged soil) not being acclimated to handle the extremes.

These climate-related agricultural events aren’t new, and when we zoom out, we can see that we’re at the brink of desertification. We saw an especially powerful example of what could be if climate change isn’t addressed on the agricultural front (and in general) as far back as in the 1930s in the United States during a catastrophic event called The Dust Bowl.droughtPhoto by Mike Erskine on Unsplash

What was the Dust Bowl?

The Dust Bowl that took place during the 1930s actually began in the 1920s, when farmers moved to and settled in the Great Plains, a region including Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Montana and Colorado.

The area was known for its rich, fertile, prairie soil that had taken thousands of years to be built up by native grasses. Following the Civil War, cattlemen began to over-graze those lush plains, setting soil erosion in motion. And once word got out about the healthy farmland, wheat farmers settled in and added to the mix by over-ploughing the land.

Together, the farmers decided to tear out millions of acres of hardy native grasses in order to plant wheat and corn during this relatively wet period. By 1920, thousands of additional farmers moved to the area, removing the remaining prairie grasses, leaving them unprepared for what would happen when the rains stopped.

Similar to today, when the 1930s hit, a multi-year drought and heat wave swept over the area, killing all of the crops and exposing the topsoil. The empty topsoil—without plant roots, organic matter and other microbial life to hold it together—was at risk of erosion, which was exactly what happened. The soil was left loose, dry and unprotected by Indigenous grasses that once grew there, and began to be swept away by winter’s strong winds.

By 1932, the winds picked up and the sky went black in the middle of the day, when a 200-mile-wide dirt cloud lifted from the ground—now known as the black blizzard. Fourteen of these black blizzards blew in 1932, 38 blew in 1933, and by 1934, the area saw 110 black blizzards. Not only did the topsoil blow over everything in its path, but some unleashed large amounts of static electricity—enough to knock someone to the ground or short out an engine. The dust piled up like snow, causing depletion of oxygen, and complete desertification of the land without the ability to feed human or cattle.

The event wasn’t isolated to the Great Plains either, even far east states saw black skies and dust in the air—after all, 100-million acres of deeply plowed farmland lost all or most of its topsoil. Each dust storm represented a thin layer of earth that had been swept away, removing thousands of years of plant life and death.

Eventually, folks began to move out west searching for the same fertile land, but all the relief checks and food handouts to help people wouldn’t bring back the lost land. Even through the imposed Soil Conservation Act of 1935 following the events, which encouraged farmers to plant more native trees to block winds from destroying their fields again, farmers continued to farm in harmful ways for the soil: by planting only the three major monocrops grown in the United States and Canada: corn, soy, and wheat.

Modern farm growing practicescropPhoto by Ant Rozetsky on Unsplash

Monocrops are one plant grown in the same place, year after year. The only difference with modern growing is that some farmers rotate the three throughout the years. Having one large crop in a field depletes the soil’s nutrients over time, making it (once again) more prone to erosion from natural events or human-made climate change. Some conventional farmers have implemented the use of cover crops for overwintering protection for the soil, which has been a bonus nutrient boost, but otherwise when soil is left bare over the winter, it can once again speed up erosion.

Pesticides, insecticides and herbicides used on crops is also a modern detriment to our soils. While these harmful sprays are successful in eliminating pests and limiting weeds in fields, they also begin to attack beneficial insects like bees, butterflies, ladybugs and other predatory insects to pests, resulting in the need for more pesticide use. The sprays inevitably end up targeting all life, even soil life, because yes—the soil is alive.

Soil is filled with microbes and organisms like worms that feed on decaying matter and expel more organic matter, which plays an important role in the soil nutrient element cycle. Pesticides have an effect on the non-targeted organisms, which damages that local metabolism required to maintain soil fertility.

Once soil becomes unfertile, we risk that same desertification. In fact, since farming began, one third of the U.S. Corn Belt, which is nearly 30 million acres of land, has lost all of its nutrient and carbon-rich topsoil. So, as we see temperatures above 100 degrees F and worsening droughts caused by global warming, it’s highly possible that without change in agricultural practices, we’ll see a modern version of the Dust Bowl, where we’ll lose even more of our soil’s history.

Is there a solution?

It’s hard to imagine that once soil loss begins that there’s a solution. For one, we cannot continue to maintain conventional growing practices without seeing the devastating results: nothing growing. We’re beyond mitigating the risks of climate change for the soil, we actively have to repair the damage that has been done.

It starts by leaving some land alone and allowing it to return to its native grasses, like in the Great Plains. Many conventional farmers who have noticed that their land is no longer viable to grow their crops are selling it or renting it for a fraction of the cost, which has opened up the opportunity for innovative folks to buy or rent it. Those who do choose to continue farming or growing food have begun to think with climate change in mind, because if we implement resilience into farming (and with soil at the forefront), it’s absolutely possible to continue growing food for our warming climate and growing populations.

Soil can be repaired by leaving it alone to re-naturalize, or for farming by adding more organic matter into our soils and planting diverse crops to feed the soil life. By working with nature rather than against it, we can establish more sustainable and resilient soils that can withstand natural occurrences, help to store carbon from the atmosphere to mitigate further climate change, and even begin to rebuild history into our soils.