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USA - History of Midwest rife with droughts

Question: The heat wave and wildfires in Australia have caused me to wonder if this could happen in our area.

Answer: Extreme heat and drought periods have occurred in our area since data began to be recorded in the 1800s. Wildfires used to burn thousands of acres of prairie in and before colonial times, and of course wildfires continue to decimate areas of the West.

Major droughts in the Midwest occurred in the mid-to-late 1800s. The early 1860s, 1877 and 1890 were particularly bad years. The 1877 drought brought with it a major swarm of Rocky Mountain locusts, which contributed to devastating crop losses in the Midwest. The “Little House” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder recounts how locusts destroyed the wheat on their farm.

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s resulted in devastating crop loss in the Midwest from 1930 to 1936, caused by severe drought coupled with massive soil erosion. During this drought, dust blew all the way from the Midwest to New York and Washington, D.C.

Thousands of people were forced to leave their homes. Midwestern farm families traveled to California and other states to find work. Author John Steinbeck later wrote of the hardships of the Dust Bowl in his novel “The Grapes of Wrath.”

The early 1960s also experienced heat and drought. As a child I remember my parents and neighbors dancing outside in sheer delight when rain finally arrived in early fall after a long spring and summer of intense heat and drought.

The El Niño drought of 1988 was intense and widespread. Heat waves killed around 4,800 to 17,000 people across the United States and also killed thousands of livestock. The drought of 1988 qualifies being one of the costliest natural disasters in the history of the United States.

In 2012, much of the U.S. had drought conditions develop through the late winter and spring months lasting most of the summer. The summer of 2012 was the third-warmest summer ever in the history of the U.S. That year taught everyone how quickly water tables can lower – especially in urban areas where runoff is a huge issue.

Using mulch in the garden and landscape always helps to conserve soil moisture. Remember to keep the mulch about 3 inches in depth, and at least 6 inches away from the bases of trees and shrubs. I prefer using moist fallen leaves and/or compost as mulch.

Watering vegetables and flowers in the morning to a 6-inch depth conserves water. Digging down 6 inches near the plants with a hand trowel is the only way to determine if the soil is moist or dry and will tell you how often and how long you need to water. Use this technique for the lawn by digging to a 4-inch depth before and after watering.

Most established trees can survive severe droughts. Water newly established trees and shrubs only during summer drought periods.

Severe droughts that have occurred in the past hopefully will make everyone realize that soil and water conservation is always an important issue.

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