Dust Bowl coming in 2025? Climatologist sees trends with 1930s

Following trends from history and tree rings, Iowa is due for drought conditions in five years.

Weather always plays an important role in farming, but the past few years have really highlighted that across the Midwest and extending into other parts of the U.S.

On the precipitation side, locations in 21 different states saw a top 5 year for wetness, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2019 Climate Report. Florida and Oregon had spots reaching the top 5 driest year on record.

For temperature, the report showed 55 locations of the 180 tracked, jumped into the top 5 hottest on record with most cities located in the southeastern part of the U.S. and one location in the Corn Belt (Akron, Ohio). Five spots fell into the top 5 for coldest year on record, including two cities in South Dakota.

While the heat hurts parts in the southeast, that rise in temperature could shift into the Midwest within the next five years, says Elwynn Taylor, Iowa State University climatologist emeritus. 

Taylor looks at past trends, verifying and extending his knowledge with tree rings, to predict repeated patterns in climate. At the 2020 Iowa Power Show in Des Moines, Iowa, Taylor presented a case for another dust bowl occurring in 2025.

Using trends, the Midwest goes through a cyclical pattern for mild climate followed by turbulent climate conditions. 

“18 years in a row had fairly consistent yields and increase to yields due to corn breeders,” Taylor says as he points to a graph. “25 years in a row volatile weather [followed], 18 years fairly consistent, and then we go into 25 of volatile – that’s where we are now, in the years that can have greater variation.”

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Taylor says this is backed up long term by tree rings that stem back 600 years ago by evaluating the growth.

“In the trees, you can go back and see what the climate has been in the past and when it repeats,” Taylor says.

Looking at the tree rings, the width of the ring reveals how much growth occurred during that year, meaning thicker gaps shows that year had more favorable weather to help generate growth.

When Taylor moved to Iowa, he approached landowners with fallen barns or sheds to cut into wood beams and view the past growth.

Using the knowledge from the tree rings, Taylor says another dust bowl is on the way in 2025.

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“2025, what is the magic thing about that year?” Taylor says. “When we looked at those tree rings, there have been dust bowls more than once in this part of the country, and they’re 89 years apart – or 90, or 91, or 88, or 87, but 89 on the average – looking back for 600 years from the growth of our oak trees that survived in Iowa.”

The pattern has repeated five times from the information gathered from the tree rings. Taylor also says the harshest year in the pattern with extreme cold and wetness in the winter is followed by the hottest and driest summers within two years. 

Taylor says the 1800s year took place in 1847, and the 1900s year occurred in 1936 (the Dust Bowl).

Toward the end of the presentation, Taylor pulls up a graph showing the days per year with temperatures over 93˚F. and days reaching -10˚F.. (see slide 17 titled “Not as many Hot or Cold days")

From 1930 to 2009, Ames, Iowa, has seen a decline in extreme weather days on both sides. The gap between the two extremes projects to minimize the most during the early 2020s.

While the years leading up should be relatively mild with fewer extremely hot or cold days, once the two sides nearly come together, a drastic change emerges. 

“What happens right here where these come together?” Taylor says. “Does it seep up slowly like it came down? No. It’s a sawtooth in our climate. We get these almost perfect years that we’ve been seeing lately, and when we get to the end of ‘how good can it get?’ it jumps [to the top] immediately to the more extremes. It is a sawtooth pattern; be ready for that.”

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If Iowa and the Midwest face a drought in the next five years, there’s a couple of places it could stem from.

Taylor says the droughts that shift into Iowa follow a path starting in either Texas or one of the Carolinas. 

“In 150 years, every drought we’ve had in Iowa started in either Texas or North or South Carolina, and a year later it gets here,” Taylor says. 

To extend on that, Taylor says a drought coming to Texas generally starts in Georgia, so there’s a multiyear path to keep an eye on.

The droughts starting in the Carolinas travel the eastern Corn Belt before hitting the western side of the region. 

Taylor looks back at the 2012 drought in Iowa as an example. He says 2010, the East Coast faced the drought, then the east-central Midwest in 2011 and 2012, and then western Iowa and the rest of the western Corn Belt in 2013. 

While Taylor is the bearer of bad news for a room of farmers and landowners, he wraps up the presentation on an optimistic note.

“Storms keep getting stronger, but so do we,” Taylor says.

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