47 Dust Bowl Pictures That Are Still Haunting Today

Published November 30, 2016
Updated September 23, 2022

These stark, heart-wrenching Dust Bowl pictures reveal both the vast scope and intimate despair of this tragic time.

Children With Dirty Faces
Dust Bowl Pictures Abandoned Equipment
Dust Bowl Pictures Migrant Mother
Dust Bowl Pictures House Dust
47 Dust Bowl Pictures That Are Still Haunting Today
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You'll recognize the stare. You have likely seen it in Dorothea Lange's iconic photo of a migrant mother taken in 1936 in California (see slide three above). And as you look through other Dust Bowl pictures, you will see that stare again and again.

It's an ineffable look at once vacant and intent, stoic and poignant, broken and resolved — the quintessential thousand-yard stare.

And if any group should summon such a stare, it's those who lived through the Dust Bowl, the worst manmade ecological disaster in United States history.

Throughout most of the 1930s and into the early 1940s, the Dust Bowl turned much of what's now known as the American heartland into a virtual wasteland.

For nearly a decade, approximately 100 million acres centered around the panhandles of both Oklahoma and Texas (though spreading as far north as the Canadian prairies) endured devastating drought made even more catastrophic by the harmful farming practices that had taken hold in the decades before.

Because the region's arid grasslands receive very little rainfall, its natural grasses played an essential part in both holding what little moisture there was in the soil and holding the soil itself down on the ground during periods of intense wind storms.

However, during the 1920s, farmers of the Great Plains had plowed away much of this grass in order to make room for more people and more crops, thus making this land even more sensitive to both drought and windstorms. And when both of those struck in the mid-1930s, the region's fate was sealed.

The land turned desolate and the sky went dark as "black blizzards" — better known as dust storms — flared up day in and day out. It was something like a biblical plague and the storms were so strong that massive clouds of dust made their way to Chicago, Boston, and New York City. In fact, one storm in 1934 was so powerful that it left both the U.S. Capitol and the Statue of Liberty covered in dirt and dust that had blown in from the Midwest.

Thanks to the drought and resultant dust storms over the course of the 1930s, crops repeatedly failed across the region while the severe conditions killed both livestock and people, leaving the situation both untenable and unliveable.

Dorothea Lange California Migrant

Dorothea LangeTitled "Broke, baby sick, and car trouble!", Dorothea Lange captured this photograph in 1937 of a migrant family whose car broke down outside of Tracy, California.

And thus it's entirely fitting that it caused a tremendous exodus. Between 1930 and 1940, approximately 3.5 million desperately poor Americans abandoned their now barren farms in the Plains states and headed for greener pastures, largely in California.

However, while as much as 75 percent of the topsoil had blown away in the region these migrants abandoned, the Great Depression made it such that California's pastures weren't actually all that much greener, with most migrants confined to low-paying farm work.

Nevertheless, the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt stepped in with a myriad of aid programs whose efforts ranged from planting trees to block wind and hold soil to distributing food to the hungry to teaching farmers dryland techniques to prevent an episode like this from ever happening again.

Thankfully, in the decades since, nothing quite like it ever has. Today, we're left with the photographs of Dorothea Lange and a few others to provide an up-close look at this one-of-a-kind American tragedy.

See some of those who lived through it, their thousand-yard stares, and the ghostly landscapes they traveled through in the Dust Bowl pictures above.


After viewing these haunting pictures of the Dust Bowl, have a look at photos that reveal the trauma experienced across America during the Great Depression as well as how life looked for the rich and powerful during this era.

John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Savannah Cox
Savannah Cox holds a Master's in International Affairs from The New School as well as a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and now serves as an Assistant Professor at the University of Sheffield. Her work as a writer has also appeared on DNAinfo.