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Are The Great Plains Headed Toward Another Dust Bowl?

SD Department of Agriculture

A recent study says more dust is blowing around the Great Plains.

Mark Sweeney studies dust as a professor of sustainability and environment at the University of South Dakota. He says the southern Great Plains are most at risk for dust storms as the climate changes. But he says the Northern Plains could be affected, too.

“We can usually make it through a one year of drought and not have to deal with big dust storms. But if we were to see a change in the meteorological patterns that would say, set up two to three to four years of drought, then we're probably looking at big dust storms.”

Widespread irrigation and improved agricultural practices help prevent dust storms. But Sweeney says that reliance on irrigation causes new problems.

The High Plains Aquifer that supplies water for much of the Southern Plains has been steadily overdrawn in recent decades. Some estimates say the aquifer could be 70 percent depleted within 50 years.

“And, so one of the reasons the Southern Plains has it a lot worse than the Northern Plains is because they're not going to be able to water themselves out of this problem in the future as temperatures continue to heat up and the soils continue to dry out and aquifers continue to deplete under the current agricultural system.”

Sweeney says one of the best ways to mitigate dust storms is keeping native grasslands intact.

This story comes from a recent interview on SDPB's weekday radio program, "In the Moment." Listen to the full interview below.