The expression “Dust Bowl” conjures up images of hot, dry summer days; but, in fact, the infamous period during the 1930s started in late fall.

NASA has traced the start of the U.S. Dust Bowl era to a zero-visibility storm that started in the Central Plains on Nov. 12, 1933, and achieved massive proportions by the 13th. As the dust blew on to the East that day, black rain fell over New York. The snowfall in Vermont was brown, sending New England scientists into a flurry of studies, trying to understand what was wrong. As far south as Tennessee, dust reduced visibility to one-half mile. 

“It certainly wasn’t the first dust storm of the Dirty Thirties. Because it initially blacked out parts of South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa, it originated much further north than the states that would be hardest hit in years to come,” said Mary Knapp, State of Kansas climatologist, housed with Kansas State University Research and Extension.

The late-fall timing was a bit unusual, too, she said. Even so, the November event did mark the decade’s first, but not worst example of the scale that U.S. Plains dust storms could achieve.

The era didn’t get a name, however, until 1935. That’s when Associated Press reporter Robert Geiger witnessed an April day still known in Kansas as Black Sunday. He then wrote that farmers’ desperate hopes for rain “rule life in the dust bowl of the continent.” The phrase quickly caught on.

“In many ways 1935 as a whole was the worst in Kansas,” Knapp said. “Back-to-back dust storms could sandblast the paint from your house. People caught outside sometimes vomited up dirt clods. A 7-year-old boy suffocated in a drift. Dust derailed a train near Colby. Cattle, wildlife and bird carcasses littered the landscape. A few ministers started saying the end of the world was at hand.”

Experts now estimate that by 1940, western Kansas had lost twice the dirt moved in digging the Panama Canal, she said. The 1940 census found Kansas also was left with 80,000 fewer residents.