Original Paper

Population and Environment

, Volume 35, Issue 4, pp 417-440

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

What we learned from the Dust Bowl: lessons in science, policy, and adaptation

  • Robert A. McLemanAffiliated withDepartment of Geography and Environmental Studies, Wilfrid Laurier University Email author 
  • , Juliette DupreAffiliated withDepartment of Geography, Burnside Hall, McGill University
  • , Lea Berrang FordAffiliated withDepartment of Geography, Burnside Hall, McGill University
  • , James FordAffiliated withDepartment of Geography, Burnside Hall, McGill University
  • , Konrad GajewskiAffiliated withDepartment of Geography, University of Ottawa
  • , Gregory MarchildonAffiliated withCanada Research Chair in Public Policy and Economic History, Johnson-Shoyama School of Public Policy, University of Regina


This article provides a review and synthesis of scholarly knowledge of Depression-era droughts on the North American Great Plains, a time and place known colloquially as the Dust Bowl era or the Dirty Thirties. Recent events, including the 2008 financial crisis, severe droughts in the US corn belt, and the release of a popular documentary film, have spawned a resurgence in public interest in the Dust Bowl. Events of the Dust Bowl era have also proven in recent years to be of considerable interest to scholars researching phenomena related to global environmental change, including atmospheric circulation, drought modeling, land management, institutional behavior, adaptation processes, and human migration. In this review, we draw out common themes in terms of not only what natural and social scientists have learned about the Dust Bowl era itself, but also how insights gained from the study of that period are helping to enhance our understanding of climate–human relations more generally.


Climate adaptation Dirty Thirties Drought Dust Bowl Great Plains Great Depression