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Desertification is the degradation of land in arid, semi arid and dry sub-humid areas into desert, resulting from various factors including climatic variations and human activities. Modern desertification often arises from the demands of increased populations that settle on the land in order to grow crops and graze animals.

However, there has been major controversy over the definition of the term, as well as its causes. Attempts to define or map areas that are or have turned into desert have been sharply criticized. What is usually less controversial is the fact of biodiversity loss, and loss of productive capacity, such as the transition from grassland dominated by perennial grasses to one dominated by annual grasses. Annual grasslands may look greener at certain times of year, or in response to rainfall, but tend to be much less productive, and are more subject to drought.



In some regions, deserts are separated sharply from surrounding, less arid areas by mountains and other contrasting landforms that reflect basic structural differences in the regional geology. In other areas, desert fringes form a gradual transition from a dry to a more humid environment, making it more difficult to define the desert border. These transition zones have very fragile, delicately balanced ecosystems. Desert fringes often are a mosaic of microclimates. Small hollows support vegetation that picks up heat from the hot winds and protects the land from the prevailing wind s. After rainfall the vegetated areas are distinctly cooler than the surroundings.

In these marginal areas human activity may stress the ecosystem beyond its tolerance limit, resulting in degradation of the land. By pounding the soil with their hooves, livestock compact the substrate, increase the proportion of fine material, and reduce the percolation rate of the soil, thus encouraging erosion by wind and water. Grazing and the collection of firewood reduces or eliminates plants that help to bind the soil.

It is a misconception that droughts cause desertification. Droughts are common in arid and semiarid lands. Well-managed lands can recover from drought when the rains return. Continued land abuse during droughts, however, increases land degradation. Increased population and livestock pressure on marginal lands has accelerated desertification. In some areas, nomads moving to less arid areas disrupt the local ecosystem and increase the rate of erosion of the land. Nomads are trying to escape the desert, but because of their land-use practices, they are bringing the desert with them.

Some arid and semi-arid lands can support crops, but additional pressure from greater populations or decreases in rainfall can lead to the few plants present disappearing. The soil becomes exposed to wind, causing soil particles to be deposited elsewhere. The top layer becomes eroded. With the removal of shade, rates of evaporation increase and salts become drawn up to the surface. This is salinisation, and inhibits plant growth. The loss of plants causes less moisture to be retained in the area, which may change the climate pattern leading to lower rainfall.

This degradation of formerly productive land is a complex process. It involves multiple causes, and it proceeds at varying rates in different climates. Desertification may intensify a general climatic trend toward greater aridity, or it may initiate a change in local climate. Desertification does not occur in linear, easily mappable patterns. Deserts advance erratically, forming patches on their borders. Areas far from natural deserts can degrade quickly to barren soil, rock, or sand through poor land management. The presence of a nearby desert has no direct relationship to desertification. Unfortunately, an area undergoing desertification is brought to public attention only after the process is well underway. Often little or no data are available to indicate the previous state of the ecosystem or the rate of degradation. Scientists still question whether desertification, as a process of global change, is permanent or how and when it can be halted or reversed.

Prehistoric patterns

Desertification is a historic phenomenon; the world's great deserts were formed by natural processes interacting over long intervals of time. During most of these times, deserts have grown and shrunk independent of human activities. Paleodeserts, large sand sea s now inactive because they are stabilized by vegetation, extend well beyond the present margins of core deserts, such as the Sahara.

Through dated fossil pollen, it has been found that today's Sahara desert has been changing between desert and fertile savanna. Studies also show that advance and retreat depend on yearly rainfall.

Historical and current desertification

Desertification became well known in the 1930s, when parts of the Great Plains in the United States turned into the "Dust Bowl" as a result of drought and poor practices in farming, although the term itself was not used until almost 1950. During the dust bowl period, millions of people were forced to abandon their farms and livelihoods. Greatly improved methods of agriculture and land and water management in the Great Plains have prevented that disaster from recurring, but desertification presently affects millions of people in almost every continent.

Desertification is widespread in many areas of China. The populations of rural areas have increased since 1949 for political reasons as more people have settled there. While there has been an increase in livestock, the land available for grazing has decreased. Also the importing of European cattle such as Friesian and Simmental, which have higher food intakes, has made things worse.

Overgrazing has made the Rio Puerco Basin of central New Mexico one of the most eroded river basins of the American West and has increased the high sediment content of the river.

Countering desertification

A number of schemes have been tried to reduce the rate of desertification and regain lost land. Leguminous plants, which use nitrogen they extract from the air, can be planted. Stones placed around the base of trees increase the shade available for plants and insects. Artificial grooves in the ground can be dug to retain moisture and trap wind-pollinated seeds. In Iran oil is being sprayed over semi-arid land with crops. This coats seedlings to prevent moisture loss and stop them being blown away. Windbreaks made from trees and bushes to reduce soil erosion and evapotranspiration was widely encouraged by development agencies from the middle of the 1980s in the Sahel area of Africa.

With many of the local people using trees for firewood and cooking the problem has become acute. In order to gain further supplies of fuel the local population add more pressure to the depleted forests; thus adding to the desertification process. Solar ovens are being advocated as a means to relieving some of this pressure upon the environment.

While desertification has received tremendous publicity by the political and news media, there are still many things that we don't know about the degradation of productive lands and the expansion of deserts. In 1988 Ridley Nelson pointed out in an important scientific paper that the desertification problem and processes are not clearly defined. There is no consensus among researchers as to the specific causes, extent, or degree of desertification. Contrary to many popular reports, desertification is actually a subtle and complex process of deterioration that may often be reversible.

At the local level, individuals and governments can help to reclaim and protect their lands. In areas of sand dunes, covering the dunes with large boulders or petroleum will interrupt the wind regime near the face of the dunes and prevent the sand from moving. Sand fence s are used throughout the Middle East and the United States, in the same way snow fence s are used in the north. Placement of straw grids, each up to a square meter in area, will also decrease the surface wind velocity. Shrubs and trees planted within the grids are protected by the straw until they take root. In areas where some water is available for irrigation, shrubs planted on the lower one-third of a dune's windward side will stabilize the dune. This vegetation decreases the wind velocity near the base of the dune and prevents much of the sand from moving. Higher velocity winds at the top of the dune level it off and trees can be planted atop these flattened surfaces.

Oases and farmlands in windy regions can be protected by planting tree fences or grass belts. Sand that manages to pass through the grass belts can be caught in strips of trees planted as wind breaks 50 to 100 meters apart adjacent to the belts. Small plots of trees may also be scattered inside oases to stabilize the area. On a much larger scale, a "Green Wall ," which will eventually stretch more than 5,700 kilometers in length, much longer than the famous Great Wall of China, is being planted in northeastern China to protect "sandy lands"--deserts believed to have been created by human activity.

More efficient use of existing water resources and control of salinization are other effective tools for improving arid lands. New ways are being sought to use surface-water resources such as rain water harvesting or irrigating with seasonal runoff from adjacent highlands. New ways also being sought to find and tap groundwater resources and to develop more effective ways of irrigating arid and semiarid lands. Research on the reclamation of deserts also is focusing on discovering proper crop rotation to protect the fragile soil, on understanding how sand-fixing plants can be adapted to local environments, and on how grazing lands and water resources can be developed effectively without being overused.

Off-road vehicles significantly increase soil loss in the delicate desert environment of the western United States, which can be controlled by restrictions on such vehicles.

See also

deforestation, Steppe.

External links and references

  • What is desertification and what are its causes
  • The premier organization for success against desertification
  • Secretariat of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification
  • UNEP page on desertification
  • Benjaminsen, Tor A; & Berge, Gunvor (2000). Timbuktu: myter, menneske, miljų. Oslo: Spartakus forlag .
  • Stock, Robert (1995). Africa South of the Sahara. New York: The Guilford Press .
  • Eden Foundation article on desertification
  • GTZ CCD Project - A key player in combating desertification and drought effects

Last updated: 02-11-2005 17:47:38