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Bite without bark: How the socioeconomic context of the 1950s U.S. drought minimized responses to a multiyear extreme climate event

  • Published Date:

    2016

  • Source:
    Weather and Climate Extremes 11 (80-94), 2016
Filetype[PDF-1.33 MB]


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  • Description:
    The drought of the 1950s was among the most widespread, severe and sustained ever experienced in the United States. For several states, the severity of the 1950s drought exceeded that of the 1930s “Dust Bowl”. The 1950s were characterized by low rainfall amounts and by excessively high temperatures. The climatological aspects of the drought subsided in most areas with the spring rains of 1957. A careful review of official reports over this period reveals limited acknowledgment of the drought of the 1950s. The drought was no secret, but it did not receive a great deal of news coverage; later droughts of lower severity and shorter duration, such as 1976–77, 1988, 2002–2004, 2011–2012 and the ongoing drought in California (2011–2015), garnered much greater national focus. In this paper, the question why such a major geophysical variation appears to have elicited little major national policy response, including the apparent lack of significant media concern is addressed. In framing the discussion this study assesses, the evolution of drought during the 1950s to establish its national and regional policy contexts, technological improvements and financial changes prior to and during the event, and on and off-farm responses in terms of the socioeconomic impacts. The study provides an overview of key developments and concerns in agriculture since the early 20th Century sets the context for the 1950s, then moves to the farm itself as a unit of analysis. This approach shows not only how the situation may have appeared to those outside the afflicted areas, but also how decisions were guided by agricultural economics affecting farmers at the time, and the strong influence of broader historical trends in which the 1950s were embedded. The paper provides the relevant agricultural statistics and uncovers the political and public perceptions moving through the drought years. Overproduction was the fundamental, almost paradoxical problem facing American agriculture at the time. The paper concludes with a discussion of how the implications of this event, and the attendant responses, might provide guidance to future assessments of extremes such as severe drought in the context of a changing climate.
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