NASA scientists have an explanation for one of the worst climatic events in the history of the United States, the "Dust Bowl" drought, which devastated the Great Plains and all but dried up an already depressed American economy in the 1930s.
Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas. (Credit: NOAA Photo Library, Historic NWS collection)
NASA Model Simulation
Abnormal sea surface temperatures (SST) in the Pacific and the Atlantic Ocean played a strong role in the 1930s dust bowl drought. Scientists used SST data acquired from old ship records to create starting conditions for the computer models. They let the model run on its own, driven only by the observed monthly global sea surface temperatures. The model was able to reconstruct the Dust Bowl drought quite closely, providing strong evidence that the Great Plains dry spell originated with abnormal sea surface temperatures. This sequence shows the warmer than normal SST (red-orange) in that the Atlantic Ocean and colder than normal SST (blues) in the Pacific Ocean, followed by a low level jet stream that shifted and weakened reducing the normal supply of moisture to the Great Plains.
Siegfried Schubert of NASAs Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., and colleagues used a computer model developed with modern-era satellite data to look at the climate over the past 100 years. The study found cooler than normal tropical Pacific Ocean surface temperatures combined with warmer tropical Atlantic Ocean temperatures to create conditions in the atmosphere that turned Americas breadbasket into a dust bowl from 1931 to 1939. The teams data is in this weeks Science magazine.
These changes in sea surface temperatures created shifts in the large-scale weather patterns and low level winds that reduced the normal supply of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and inhibited rainfall throughout the Great Plains.
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