Drought: A Paleo Perspective
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Cornstalk, Steinbeck quote  

 ...Now the wind grew strong and hard,
it worked at the rain crust
in the corn fields.

Little by little the sky
was darkened by the mixing dust,
and the wind felt over the earth,
loosened the dust and carried it away.

...from The Grapes of Wrath,
    written by John Steinbeck.

Droughts occur throughout North America, and in any given year, at least one region is experiencing drought conditions. The major drought of the 20th century, in terms of duration and spatial extent, is considered to be the 1930s Dust Bowl drought which lasted up to 7 years in some areas of the Great Plains. The 1930s Dust Bowl drought, memorialized in John Steinbeck's novel, The Grapes of Wrath, was so severe, widespread, and lengthy that it resulted in a mass migration of millions of people from the Great Plains to the western U.S. in search of jobs and better living conditions.

Just how unusual was the Dust Bowl drought? Was this a rare event or should we expect drought of similar magnitude to occur in the future? Rainfall records used to evaluate drought extend back 100 years, and are too short to answer these questions. However, these questions can be answered by analyzing records from tree rings, lake and dune sediments, archaeological remains, historical documents and other environmental indicators, which can extend our understanding of past climate far beyond the 100-year instrumental record.

This Web site was designed to explain how paleoclimatic data can provide information about past droughts and about the natural variability of drought over timescales of decades to millennia. We note that droughts are a world wide phenomenon and affect the global community. However, the focus of these Web pages is North America.



12 November 2003
North American Drought: A Paleo Perspective
Created by the staff of the NOAA Paleoclimatology Program
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Acknowledgements, Use of NOAA Images and Site Map