When we look at the ways that weather has affected and shaped both the physical and psychological landscape of the United States, two words often come to mind, summoning an entire era in the middle part of the last century: Dust Bowl. There’s no guarantee, of course, that we won’t return to those vividly desolate conditions across vast tracts of land sometime in the near future. After all, the only thing we know with any certainty at all is that history repeats itself, and to assume that mammoth and long-lasting drought is a thing of the past is a surefire way to remain unprepared in the future.
Here, LIFE.com looks back, through the lens of the great Margaret Bourke-White, at a period when—as LIFE phrased it in a May 1954 issue—there was a “Dusty Plague Upon the Land.”
The delicate, lethal powder spread in a brown mist across the prairie horizon. Across Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, the darkening swirls of loosened topsoil chewed their way across the plains, destroying or damaging 16 million acres of land. Man fought back with such techniques as chiseling. . . . driving a plow six inches into the soil to turn up clots of dirt which might help hold the precious land from the vicious winds. Against the dusty tide these feeble efforts came too little and too late. Two decades after the nation’s worst drought year in history, 1934, the southern plains were again officially labeled by the U.S. government with two familiar words—”Dust Bowl.”