The twelve years that were: Desertification

Posted on | September 28, 2009 | 9 Comments

Dust storm over Utah, March 2009. Source: NASA

Utah, March 4, 2009. Source: NASA Earth Observatory. Dust blows out of the West Desert, where Las Vegas plans to pump the groundwater. Click on the image to be taken to the Earth Observatory.

Buenos Aires: experts from the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) called for an immediate global response to the increasing number of sand and dust storms. — United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, September 24, 2009

As defined by the UN Convention, desertification is a process of “land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities.” — United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, June, 1997

The [Las Vegas] pumping project will result in likely irreversible loss of critical native vegetation covering a desert expanse equal in size to the state of Vermont. Where water diversion projects like this have been done before in California and other parts of the world, the result has been exactly what was predicted: more dust, more pollution and more disease. — Salt Lake Tribune comment piece by Dr Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, September 25, 2009

Updates after the jump

Twelve dust storms barreled into the southern Rockies from the deserts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico so far this year. In contrast, four storms hit the mountains all year long in 2003. — “Dust storms speed snowmelt in Colorado,” Los Angeles Times, May 24, 2009

Desert dust suppressing precipitation: a possible desertification feedback loop – Title of a paper by Daniel Rosenfeld, Yinon Rudich and Ronen Lahav, Proceedings of the National Academies of Science, May 22, 2001

A wall of dust stretched from northern Queensland to the southern tip of eastern Australia on the morning of September 23, 2009 — NASA’s Earth Observatory

Sydney Dust Storm. Source: Mail on SundayOne of the worst dust storms in Australia’s history has caused travel chaos in Sydney with many major flights redirected or cancelled UK Daily Mail, September 23, 2009

Dust storms in Australia, the world’s driest inhabited continent with a vast desert-like outback interior, are not uncommon. — Reuters, September 22

Under the aegis of its Ministry of Agriculture, Tunisia plants 40 million eucalyptus, acacia, and pine trees a year to combat encroaching desert sands, at an annual cost of about $30 million-less than $1 per tree. — Fighting the Sahara, The Futurist, May/Jun 2004. Vol. 38, Iss. 3

An ancient oasis [The Shiyang River Basin]  that can be traced back 2000 years is disappearing. — “A warning from an ancient oasis: intensive human activities are leading to potential ecological and social catastrophe,” Shaozhong Kang, Xiaoling Su, Ling Tong, Jianhua Zhang, et al. International Journal of Sustainable Development and World Ecology. London: Oct 2008. Vol. 15, Iss. 5

Across the length and breadth of China dust storms are an annual event – a clear sign that spring has sprung — “A land turned to dust,” The New Scientist, June 2005

Dust storm of Beijing. Source: NASA. Click on the image to be taken to the Earth Observatory

Dust storm of Beijing. Source: NASA. Click on the image to be taken to the Earth Observatory

A few days earlier than usual, a large, dense plume of dust blew southward and eastward from the desert plains of Mongolia—quite smothering to the residents of Beijing. Citizens of northeastern China call this annual event the “shachenbao,” or “dust cloud tempest.” However, the tempest normally occurs during the spring time. — Earth Observatory, March 19, 2002

Here we show that there is a broad consensus among climate models that this region will dry in the 21st century and that the transition to a more arid climate should already be under way. If these models are correct, the levels of aridity of the recent multiyear drought or the Dust Bowl and the 1950s droughts will become the new climatology of the American Southwest within a time frame of years to decades — Richard Seager, Mingfang Ting, Isaac Held, Yochanan Kushnir, et al. Science magazine, May 25, 2007, Vol. 316, Iss. 5828

Most of the endangered dryland regions lie near the world’s five main desert areas:

  • The Sonoran Desert of northwest Mexico and its continuation into the southwest United States;
  • The Atacama Desert, a thin coastal strip in South America between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean;
  • A large desert area running eastward from the Atlantic Ocean to China, including the Sahara desert, the Arabian Desert, the deserts of Iran and the former Soviet Union, the Great Indian Desert (Thar) in Rajasthan, and the Takla-makan and Gobi Deserts in China and Mongolia;
  • The Kalahari Desert in southern Africa; and

The Southern Nevada Water Authority has proposed piping millions of gallons of water 300 miles from the aquifer that lies beneath the valley straddling the Utah-Nevada state line south to Las Vegas, where growth has outstripped available water. Mike Styler, director of the Utah Department of Natural Resources, and Nevada officials have come up with a formula for allocating the water to the two states. It could go into effect in 2019. The National Park Service and wildlife managers worry that the delicate desert ecosystems would not survive the siphoning of groundwater. Snake Valley ranchers are worried about their livelihoods. But Wasatch Front residents have a stake in this, too. If the Snake Valley were to become a dust bowl, air quality in Utah’s most populous counties, already unhealthy at times, would deteriorate even further. That means all Utahns should study the draft agreement and let Utah officials know what they think. And time is running out fast. Wednesday is the final day for the public to register concerns, opposition or support. You can do that and also look over the draft documents and other people’s comments by logging on at — Salt Lake Tribune editorial, September 29, 2009

The Utah Medical Association says a proposed agreement to divide water from the Snake Valley aquifer with Nevada could expose the public to carcinogens, radiation and valley fever.Las Vegas Review Journal, October 2, 2009

This post has been updated. The last entry giving a regional breakdown of the dryland regions most vulnerable to desertification as identified by the United Nations and the 9/28/2009 Salt Lake Tribune editorial have been added.


9 Responses to “The twelve years that were: Desertification”

  1. Gayle
    September 28th, 2009 @ 6:41 pm

    Wow…eye-opening when presented as a time-stamped group…not sure if it should make me feel helpless or hopeful!

  2. EmilyGreen
    September 28th, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

    I was surprised how little there was on desertification as I scoured ProQuest. In common with climate change, there was a lot of debate as to whether it exists or not. The definition has always been pretty clear — it’s occurred when indigenous vegetation conks out and cannot be revived — but studies proving that take a long time. And so dissenters have successfully marginalized it. Yes, it’s sobering. I inflicted it on readers because of the phooey being fed credulous politicians by groundwater operations that you can mine aquifers without consequences. It seemed particularly timely given the pressure on Governor Herbert in Utah to sign the Las Vegas-Snake Valley water sharing agreement.

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  4. Stephanie
    October 5th, 2009 @ 1:12 am

    I’m in no way an expert, but I’ve learned in class that desertification may be a myth… at least in some places. We watched the film “Timbuktu: Where water is life and milk is food.” It explains that desertification may be caused by regular climatic shifts rather than anthropogenic impacts. Of course this depends on where and what changes are happening.

  5. EmilyGreen
    October 5th, 2009 @ 12:06 pm

    Stephanie, thank you for writing and for the link.

    As far as I can gather from having gone back through ProQuest and reading literature on desertification is not whether it exists. The petrified forests of the Southwest and fossil evidence globally tell us that it exists.

    Rather, the issue is defining where it exists and what causes it.

    The problem with measuring desertification in arid regions, which has given rise to a nay-sayer movement, is that some of these regions go through prolonged dry spells naturally, then recover when rain comes.

    But that is not desertification.

    Rather, the definition of desertification is when the dry spell isn’t a spell, but a new normal, either caused by groundwater withdrawals or climate change or both. In that case, the loss of water irretrievably changes the landscape so the local flora and fauna no longer exist.

    Measuring that collapse can take decades as damage occurs, and frequently occurs in patches depending on the geology of the land, climate patterns, vegetation etc.

    If you look at some of the most compelling examples of desertification in China, you see aquifers that once supported thousands now supporting millions, dropping water tables and now regular epic dust storms.

    My own take is that desertification is, like climate change, hard to prove until it’s too late.

    Given that desertification exists, given that it clearly can be courted by mining groundwater without sufficient recharge of the groundwater, it then follows that prudent management of aquifers will be key in avoiding natural collapse, whether or not that collapse is final (desertification) or temporary.

    Thanks again for writing.

  6. kate fite
    October 5th, 2009 @ 7:30 pm

    As someone who works on public lands grazing: please think of desertification in that sense, too.

    While the Las Vegas SNWA water heist is appalling, the practices of the ranchers in Spring Valley are appalling too. And now, most of the Spring Valley ranches – and the public lands grazing permits – are held by SNWA.

    So on top a century and a half of cattle and sheep desertification – and the absurdity of private lands hay irrigation in Spring Valley to support these same cattle and sheep in winter- we now have SNWA holding and GRAZING -the public lands permits they have bought up.

    If anyone wants to understand these dust storms – look at public lands grazing in NV and portions of CA.

  7. EmilyGreen
    October 5th, 2009 @ 8:38 pm

    Kate Fite makes an important point. It took SNWA coming into the valleys around Mt. Wheeler and Great Basin National Park to bring together conservationists and ranchers, who had traditionally been at odds over grazing. If there is something to be said for the pressure of grazing and alfalfa production in that region over SNWA it’s that local farming returns at least some of the water it pulls when irrigating. So it is not nearly as damaging to the water table as pulling out the water, piping it hundreds of miles, and having it discharged into Lake Mead as treated urban sewage. Local ranchers are increasingly coming to terms with the fact that springs they knew as children have disappeared because of their irrigation pumps. In fact, one of their most powerful arguments is that the water table is already falling, so how can there be tens of thousands of acre feet of more water to export. Anyway, good point. Thank you for writing.

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