Past Climate Myths: Rain Follows the Plow

I find it interesting how some of our modern-day myths concerning our climate, like the myth of the rapidly vanishing Cascade Mountain snowpack, have similarities to an earlier myth “Rain Follows the Plow” concerning the climate during the settlement of the American west.  I here quote directly from Mark Reisner’s book Cadillac Desert:

For a number of years after 1865, a long humid cycle brought uninterrupted above-average rainfall to the plains.  Guides leading wagon trains to Oregon reported that western Nebraska, usually blond from drought or black from prairie fires, had turned opalescent green.  Late in the 1870s, the boundary of the Great American Desert appeared to have retreated westward across the rockies to the threshold of the Great Basin.

Since the rains coincided with the headlong westward advance of settlement, the two must somehow be related.  Professor Cyrus Thomas, a noted climatologist, was a leading proponent.  “Since the territory [of Colorado] has begun to be settled,” he announced in declamatory tones, “towns and cities built up, farms cultivated, mines opened, and roads made and travelled, there has been a gradual increase in moisture….I therefore give it as my firm conviction that this increase is of a permanent nature, and not periodical, and that it has commenced within eight years past, and that it is in some way connected to the settlement of the country, and that as population increases the moisture will increase.”  Ferdinand V. Hayden, who was Thomas’s boss and one of the most famous geographers and geologists of his time, also subscribed to the theory.  The exact explanations varied.  Plowing the land exposed the soil’s moisture to the sky.  Newly planted trees enhanced rainfall.  The smoke from trains caused it.  Vibrations in the air created by all the commotion helped clouds to form.  Dynamiting the air became a popular means of inducing rain to fall.  Even the Secretary of Agriculture came out for a demonstration in Texas.  “The result,” he reported, “was–a loud noise!”

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