drought climate farming
Credit: jean wimmerlin/Unsplash

Opinion: Climate change and soil loss — the new Dust Bowl?

How we can save our soil, stabilize the climate, and prevent a new Dust Bowl.

In May, seven people died and 37 were injured when a rare dust storm caused a 72-vehicle pileup on Interstate 55 in Illinois.


For many in the scientific and agricultural communities, the dust storm harkened back to the devastating Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Recent climate patterns in Illinois are not unlike those in the 1930s, with prolonged dry spells during the critical growing season, combined with high winds that carried the dry soil aloft.

And, as in the 1930s, farming practices are part of the problem. Large-scale, conventional farming focuses on intensive single crop production, mechanization, and depends on fossil fuels, pesticides, antibiotics and synthetic fertilizers. While this system yields high production levels, it also contributes to climate change, pollutes air and water, and depletes soil fertility.

When agricultural operations are sustainably managed, they can preserve and restore critical habitats, help protect watersheds, and improve soil health and water quality.

Pesticides and soil degradation 

Central Illinois is home to some of the richest farmland in the nation; its endless fields of corn and soybeans are a marvel of modern agribusiness. Industrial agriculture originated in the 1960s when petrochemical companies introduced new methods of intense chemical farming. For farmers, the immediate effect was a spectacular improvement in agricultural production, hailed as the “Green Revolution.” However, we are now seeing the downside of industrial agriculture on a global scale.

One downside is massive soil erosion and degradation. According to a 2020 report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, every year, U.S. croplands lose at least twice as much soil to erosion as the Great Plains lost annually during the peak of the Dust Bowl. Worse, our farms could lose an additional 28 billion tons of soil by 2035 and 148 billion tons by 2100—about 300 years’ worth at the rate at which soil naturally forms.

Much of that eroded topsoil ends up in waterways and lakes and — eventually — in the Gulf of Mexico. And that soil is laden with nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides used to keep pests and weeds at bay. Excess nitrogen in the waterways results in algae blooms that choke out the oxygen and deplete aquatic life.

Climate change impacts and causes 

Moreover, soil loss contributes to climate change. As soil degrades, it loses its ability to store carbon. In colder climates, like those found in central Illinois, where decomposition is slow, soils can store—or “sequester”— this carbon for a very long time. Degraded soils return carbon to the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main greenhouse gas causing climate change.

While agriculture can be a cause of climate change, it can also suffer from it. Climate impacts vary by region, but a hotter planet means changes in agricultural production, impacts to soil and water resources, and health challenges for farmworkers and livestock.

Alternatives to industrial agriculture

So, while it is obvious that climate change disrupts agriculture, a $19 billion per year industry that is one of the state’s largest economic drivers, there is no simple solution. Industrial agriculture is dependent on chemicals and is highly mechanized and energy-intensive, favoring large corporate farmers with sufficient capital, thus forcing most of the traditional single-family farmers with smaller holdings to the sidelines. All levels of government also influence what a farmer decides to grow, where a farm can be located, how products are transported and processed, how a commodity is traded, and the price the farmer might receive for her or his crop.

There are alternatives to industrial agriculture, which are easier on the land. These include ecologically oriented farming approaches, including organic farming, permaculture, regenerative farming and sustainable agriculture. In recent years, the term “agroecology” has increasingly been used as a unifying term, referring to both the scientific basis and the practice of an agriculture based on ecological principles.

Agroecology includes practices like no-till farming and double cropping. The practice of cover cropping holds great promise, not only for preserving soil, but for enhancing it naturally, with less fertilizer — and for trapping carbon that would otherwise be released to the atmosphere. Yet, in Illinois less than 5% of farmed acreage is cover cropped – in part because it is considered economically risky and does not receive strong support from the U.S.Department of Agriculture.

Nearly a century ago, misguided farming practices collided with climatic change to create the economic and social devastation of the Dust Bowl. This spring, the skies darkened again with soil turned to dust; a somber warning. By embracing agroecological practices, we can save our soil, stabilize the climate, and prevent a new Dust Bowl.

LNG gulf coast
Leo Dyson, a retired commercial fisherman. (Credit: Courtney O'Banion for the Louisiana Bucket Brigade)

LNG production comes with a price, Gulf Coast communities warn

US takes the global lead on liquid natural gas production and export, as economic promises and environmental worries collide.

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 2 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less
Senator Whitehouse & climate change

Senator Whitehouse puts climate change on budget committee’s agenda

For more than a decade, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily warnings about the mounting threat of climate change. Now he has a powerful new perch.
Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way
Coast Guard inspects Cameron LNG Facility in preparation for first LNG export in 2019. (Credit: Coast Guard News)

Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 1 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less
environmental justice

Agents of Change: New fellows focused on storytelling, policy change and justice

The Agents of Change in Environmental Justice program, a partnership between Environmental Health News and Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, is excited to announce our fifth group of fellows.

Keep reading...Show less
abandoned oil and gas wells economics
Credit: Amelia Martin/BigStock Photos ID: 396427748

The looming cost of unaddressed oil well closures

As the oil industry faces a downturn, unplugged oil and gas wells present significant environmental and financial challenges, potentially burdening taxpayers with the cleanup bill.

Mark Olalde and Nick Bowlin report for ProPublica and Capital & Main.

Keep reading...Show less

Builders resist stricter energy codes for new homes

In a clash over climate and affordability, home builders are lobbying against stricter energy efficiency standards for new houses, citing cost concerns.

Anna Phillips reports for The Washington Post.

Keep reading...Show less

Legal battle intensifies over Antwerp's new mega petrochemical plant

Environmental groups escalate their legal fight against the construction of Europe's largest petrochemical plant in Antwerp, citing severe environmental and climate concerns.

Sandra Laville and Lisa O'Carroll report for The Guardian.

Keep reading...Show less

UK bids farewell to fossil fuel pact

The UK has exited the Energy Charter Treaty, joining a wave of EU countries in rejecting the agreement criticized for hindering climate goals.

Stuart Braun reports for Deutsche-Welle.

Keep reading...Show less
From our Newsroom
petrochemical shell pennsylvania plastic

Tracking petrochemical accidents across the US

A new database monitors fires, flares, spills and other accidents at petrochemical plants.

petrochemical houston gulf coast

Lives “devastated’ by petrochemical industry pollution in Texas: Report

New analysis illustrates the climate, environmental, and human rights tolls linked to petrochemical production surrounding the Houston Ship Channel region.

LNG gulf coast

La producción de gas natural licuado tiene un precio, advierten las comunidades la Costa del Golfo

Entre promesas económicas y preocupaciones ambientales, Estados Unidos lidera la producción y exportación de gas natural licuado.

Ante la expansión del GNL en la costa del Golfo, la comunidad espera erigirse como un muro de contención

Ante la expansión del GNL en la costa del Golfo, la comunidad espera erigirse como un muro de contención

“La gente no sabe qué haríamos sin el petróleo y el gas. Esto nos sale muy caro”.

extreme heat

Op-ed: We are undercounting heat-related deaths in the US

Knowing how many people die or get sick from heat-related causes is essential for the policy arguments to equitably adapt to and mitigate climate change.

environmental justice

LISTEN: Idalmis Vaquero on turning community priorities into policies

“I wanted to find a way to connect the things I was learning in my classroom with the things I was seeing in my community.”

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.