Farming techniques of the early 20th century certainly exacerbated Dust Bowl conditions across the Southwest. Some farmers practiced a technique called listing, a type of plowing that was thought to reduce erosion. But instead, Bolles said, listing “broke up soil surface crusts and churned up silt-size particles, which are easily picked up by wind.”

So how did the Dust Bowl end? The answer is a combination of human effort and luck. “The rains returned in the early 1940s to break the drought,” Bolles said, while environmental research and public effort “led to better understanding of an important ecosystem that we still benefit from.”

Today, many of the natural conditions that triggered Dust Bowl storms in the 1930s are back, threatening to bring similar problems: record-high temperatures, severe droughts and a significant increase in airborne dust. Beyond concerns about agricultural harm, scientists are worried about the effects of airborne dust on public health. Dust storms decrease visibility and contain tiny particles that can cause heart and lung problems over time. Human activity is the main driver of these new environmental changes.

Droughts and heat waves are inevitable, and they can be devastating even when human activity does not exacerbate them. Without corrective action, scientists warn, the next Dust Bowl era could be even worse.

ALEX REMNICK is a writer and social media producer at Retro Report. This article first appeared in Retro Report’s free weekly newsletter. Subscribe and receive lessons from history in your mailbox. Follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.