June 24, 2002
In the last half of the 19th century, conventional wisdom in North America held that the climate in the Prairies – the vast lands that comprise much of the continent – was changing. In the United States and Canada, tens of governments, thousands of businesses and hundreds of thousands of individuals spent fortunes in line with this wisdom – the only time in human history that great sums were spent in anticipation of climate change.
The conventional wisdom was wrong. The fortunes were lost. Even worse, it took us down a path that led to North America’s greatest environmental disaster of the 20th century, and to staggering social costs that still bedevil us today.
Before the climate change theories came into vogue more than a century ago, settlements had stopped at the Prairie’s edge. Everyone knew that the arid lands – dubbed the Great American Desert – could not be farmed. But for several years, above-average rainfall blessed large parts of the Prairies, fostering wishful theories that allowed people to think that the climate had changed, and with it the rules of agriculture. The most popular climate change theory held that “rain follows the plow,” as if areas received rain because they were farmed, and not the other way around. Under this belief, which many scientists soundly endorsed, plowing exposed the soil’s moisture to the sky. “It is the great increase in the absorptive power of the soil, wrought by cultivation, that has caused, and continues to cause an increasing rainfall in the State,” explained University of Nebraska scientist Samuel Aughey. With the soil broken, rain is absorbed “like a huge sponge.” Evaporation from the soil then increases rainfall.
Others theorized that the new transcontinental trains were stirring the atmosphere and changing the flow of moisture, letting rains fall in the Prairies that otherwise would have travelled further east. The staid Army and Navy Journal attributed the rains to the railroad having altered the atmosphere’s electrical condition. In accepting yet another climate change theory, The Nation stated in 1887 that the entire Prairies “will within a few years enjoy a rainfall sufficient to admit of raising crops without any considerable degree of artificial irrigation.”
The wishful theories suited the politics of the day. Governments on both sides of the border were determined to encourage settlements on the Prairies, as were the railroads and developers eager to cash in on these government policies. It would take decades before the mad theories were put to rest, partly because scientists who dissented from the conventional wisdom were finally heard, mostly because the Prairies reverted to their historic, arid state. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 1896 Yearbook of Agriculture soberly concluded that “farmers have deluded themselves with the belief that with the breaking of soil . . . and bringing civilization, the climate was becoming more favorable to their operations.” The U.S. Geological Survey found that “fruitless and demoralizing movements of population” into the Prairies were occurring on the mistaken belief that “a radical change of climate” was taking place.
By then, much of the Prairies was overpopulated, creating vested interests to maintain farmers on land that could not safely sustain them. In his Report on the Arid Lands of North America, John Wesley Powell, perhaps the most prominent scientist of his day, recommended policies that would have slashed the farm population to one-sixteenth that planned, to avoid overpopulation.
He was ignored. Other theories that justified farming the desert arose, the theories spread like wildfire through government and farm lobby organizations, and settlers kept coming in droves. At the turn of the century, Stephen Leacock wrote in his history of Canada, two million people left Europe for the New World, the Prairies the destination for many of them.
The land could stand the strain for only so long. Residents of the northern Prairies would pay the consequences in a severe drought that hit between 1917 and 1921. Many farms failed then, but the worst was yet to come. The settlement of the Prairies soon produced the Dust Bowl, an unprecedented environmental disaster. With the native grasses plowed under for crop cultivation, and with intensive cultivation reducing the size of soil particles, the soil became dust when drought and high temperatures lowered the soil’s moisture. Winds then stripped areas of Saskatchewan and Alberta entirely of topsoil.
The first of the great dust storms swept across the northern plains in 1933. A May, 1934, dust storm that started in Montana carried some 350 million tons of soil toward the East Coast. Others were equally severe. The storms lasted until 1940.
The Prairie weather hadn’t changed, after all. But the Prairies have. Still overpopulated, and potent politically, if not economically, Prairie residents remain dependent on government payments for their sustenance, and delude themselves into thinking of droughts, rather than rain, as the exceptions. In 1690, the first European explorer in the Canadian Prairies, Henry Kelsey of the Hudson’s Bay Company, called the Prairies “barren ground.” So it was and so it will remain, as long as Prairie policies continue to be based on fictions.