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Is Climate Change Driving the Southwest Toward a Dust Bowl?

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The following article first appeared in the Nation. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for their email newsletters here.

Ed Moore's ranch sits on the flatlands of the Texas panhandle, east of Lubbock, just outside the tiny town of Ralls. On a clear day, you can see for miles in any direction. Most days, however, the dust blows-and when it does, the sky becomes a dull orange haze and the scene becomes impressionistic. The high gray towers of grain elevators dot the landscape. Cattle graze in silhouette. Farmers ride through the gloom on tractors with vast "sand fighters" that gather the earth into big clods so the soil won't blow away. It's daytime, yet it's dark-not as black as it gets during the worst of the dust storms, like those that tore through southeastern Colorado in the spring and the ones that swept across Phoenix a few years ago, and maybe not as bleak as the land-destroying Dust Bowl days of the 1930s, but nevertheless eerily subdued. Something clearly isn't right.

In a typical year, the winds ease up in mid-spring, and the dust tamps down. In the past three years, however, as the rains have failed and the land has dried up, the winds have continued into the searingly hot summers. As they blow, the soil disintegrates, and what little moisture there is in the earth evaporates. The soil quality is now so poor that on the few occasions when it does rain, the next day's wind simply blows the newly moistened topsoil away. Across the area you can see rows of cotton, black and dead in the orange earth-entire fields burned by the static electricity generated by the sandstorms.

Locals have started calling the storms by their Arabic name, haboobs-presumably a nomenclature brought back by returning Iraq War veterans. Lately the haboobs have been visiting themselves on the High Plains with a depressing regularity. They are no longer considered an episodic menace but rather a fixture of the landscape, the calling card of an emerging climatological crisis.            


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