Bark without bite: The socio-economic context of the 1950s drought

  • 26 January 2016
  • Number of views: 7198

The drought of the 1950s was among the most widespread, severe and sustained ever experienced in the United States, exceeding that of the 1930s "Dust Bowl" in several states.

Specifically, the 1950s were characterized both by low rainfall amounts and by excessively high temperatures. In spite of its severity, this drought did not receive a great deal of news coverage. In fact, later droughts of lower severity and shorter impact (1976-1977, 1988, 2002-2004, 2011-2012, and the ongoing drought in California) garnered much greater national focus.

A new study, co-authored by CPO's Roger Pulwarty, assesses, the evolution of weather and climate conditions and impacts during the 1950s to establish their national and regional decisionmaking contexts, scientific and technological improvements prior to and during the event that helped mitigate risks, 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 concludes with a discussion of how the implications of this event and the attendant responses provides guidance for future assessments of extremes such as severe drought, in the context of a changing climate. published in Weather and Climate Extremes Journal.

Access the paper at:




Americans’ health, security and economic wellbeing are tied to climate and weather. Every day, we see communities grappling with environmental challenges due to unusual or extreme events related to climate and weather. In 2017, the United States experienced a record-tying 16 climate- and weather-related disasters where overall costs reached or exceeded $1 billion. Combined, these events claimed 362 lives, and had significant economic effects on the areas impacted, costing more than $306 billion. Businesses, policy leaders, resource managers and citizens are increasingly asking for information to help them address such challenges.


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