Destructive farming and
intense drought caused
the last Dust Bowl. To
see what’s coming, look
This year we’ve already seen a few small haboobs in Arizona and West Texas, but today something is setting up in the Southwest that might put them in a more realistic perspective. Santa Anna winds hit California yesterday, December 1st, with wind gusts up to 140 mph, according to some sources. Some places had peak winds of only 129 mph. High winds were reported up and down the West Coast, and the windstorm is expected to move across the southwest, eventually even reaching us here in Indiana. Crap, time to dig out my dust mask. If this storm doesn’t bring a good dust storm with it, I’ll be really happy, but I’ll keep the mask handy and dread the next strong wind. All we need to start it rolling is a Perfect Storm.
I’ve only been through two dust storms, both small ones that blew out of Texas into the Ozarks some years ago. Well, ok, maybe four or five if I count the Mt. Saint Helens eruptions. The regular dust storms were not nearly as dramatic as the haboobs in the Southwest this year, and never made the news. We saw them coming as low grayish-white walls of roiling clouds. The dust hit thin and fine, and even indoors with everything shut tight and rags and towels stuffed into the cracks under the doors, the dust hung in the air nearly invisibly, making the air just a little too thick to breathe. I did not want to see any more dust storms after that.
Breathing becomes all-important when there’s dust in the air so fine that it gets into the critical parts of your lungs. You need to keep dust out of there to avoid long term health problems like emphysema. One bout of dust won’t kill you unless it’s extraordinary, but years of it can ruin you, no matter how healthy you start out. The men in my family tend to die of lung problems and I’ve had my share, having spent a lot of years at dusty and dirty jobs. The dust masks people wear for home renovation projects don’t do much. A doctor advising me on my own health problems when I worked at a particularly filthy job some years back even told me that these particle masks are useless. The real dangerous dust particles, fine enough to penetrate into alveoli where they might remain permanently, go right through a particle mask, and a lot of unfiltered air goes right around them. I’d recommend them over nothing, for comfort reasons at least, since they keep some of the larger dusts out of your sinuses and throat. But if you care about your health you’ll need something better.
My grandfather, family history says, became briefly famous for planting the first trees in Kansas under the restoration program implemented to prevent another Dust Bowl. The line of cottonwoods he planted down the main street of Hill City drew the attention of the newspapers and a handshake from the Kansas governor. My grandfather also died a slow and unpleasant death from breathing in six years of dust storms. Not everyone left Kansas, and my grandfather dug through drifts of fine dust every day to deliver the mail to people who stayed. He’d probably have been better off moving to California.
My grandpa didn’t have a lot of dust protection, but there’s better gear available today. Masks designed for hazardous workplaces seal against your face and force all air through a carbon filter cartridge. They’re uncomfortable but effective. Some were meant for disposal after a few hours of use, but others allow cartridge replacement to extend the life of the product. What will fail most often is the elastic that holds them in place, and you might wind up having to buy a new mask now and then because you can’t get two feet of elastic strap to replace it. Carbon filters protect against more than dust and will take harmful gases out of the air as well. Some people can’t stand them, because you breathe against a little bit of resistance, but people who don’t wear them and work at hazardous jobs like auto-body repair or fiberglass molding die very predictably of lung diseases. What goes in does not always come out. I’ve learned to be very comfortable in a breathing mask that works.
There is a light and fairly fashionable alternative to a plastic mask with cartridge filters, and I do own one of these, too. Bicycle couriers in urban areas wear them to keep exhaust fumes and dust out of their lungs. Makes good sense, because if you’re a bike messengers you need a good pair of lungs. The Respro courier mask I own uses a replaceable fabric carbon filter within a leather outer cover that molds fairly well to your face. I have high cheek bones and a thin face so I have to keep my mouth open for the mask to seal, but it does work. When you inhale, valves in the mask seal and force air through the filter. When you exhale, the valves open so you don’t fight the mask when you’re breathing hard. Makes you look and sound a little bit like Darth Vader, but it works.
Keeping dust out of your home during a dust storm probably won’t be possible, but you can decrease the amount of dust that enters. The CDC recommends a supply of plastic sheeting and duck tape to counter chemical and biological attacks near your home, and the same supplies work against dust. The problem with fine dust is that it comes in along with the air you need to breathe. Sealing up everything won’t be good for your health, you’d just suffocate. Sealing things up well just forces dust and air through smaller cracks you can’t find. A possible compromise that offers some hope is opening a window a few inches and sealing the opening with layers of fine cloth. Some dust gets through, but more air flows through the filtered opening than through unfiltered cracks.
Any opening brings in dust in a dust storm. Dust barriers increase comfort, but a good breathing mask for everyone in the family is the only way to keep your lungs clean. Filters for the car are also critical, because your car also needs to breathe clean air. Dust will ruin the engine if it gets past the air filter, and the air filter will clog quickly. Stock up on air filters in advance, because they might be in short supply after a big dust storm.
I’m wondering now why we’re not hearing more about the potential for a new Dust Bowl, considering the intense level of drought in the Western U.S. this year. Maybe it’s because our government knows that past policies and recommended farming practices have set us up especially well for a recurrence of the Dust Bowl era.
Weather just sets us up for dust storms. People add the rest of the puzzle pieces to the big ones, usually, through poor farming practices. During the Carter Administration when farmers were encouraged to plant all available land, fencerow to fencerow, many of the shelterbelts and windrows planted after the Dust Bowl became plowed ground again. Today, farmers plow and plant even in the worst of conditions, because if you don’t plow and plant and fertilize, you can’t collect on crop insurance. This means that this fall and next spring, farmers in Texas will be plowing dusty ground for wheat and cotton as usual, even though the long term prospects are grim.
When you break up drought-ravaged ground, you make dust. There’s not much natural ground cover in many parts of Texas anyway, when things get this dry, but an unseen mat of roots and dormant plants hides in those important top layers. Plow it up and that net shatters. The plants desiccate and die and the soil falls apart. The next strong wind picks it up and moves it somewhere else. Dirt can travel hundreds or thousands of miles. Some of the best topsoil in the American Midwest used to be in China.
I smell a new garden in the wind.
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