Desertification 101: How It Happens, Why, and Solutions

Scientists have been concerned about desertification – causes, effects, and solutions – for quite some time now. It’s a real environmental problem that we need to fix before it is too late. Let’s look into some of the factors that contribute to desertification, as well as effects and potential solutions around the world.

How It Happens

Desertification basically limits the land’s capacity of supporting life. In turn, this phenomenon affects both people and wildlife, sometimes in an irreversible way. The reduction of plant cover and the removal of plants lead to severe soil erosion. At the same time, they increase the chance of runoff and raindrop impact.

The problem with desertification is that it’s a self-continuing process. Once it starts on a specific area of land, continual deterioration is bound to continue from there. Statistics show desertification damages around 12 million hectares of land annually.

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What Exactly Is Desertification?

Desertification usually occurs in dry climates as a process of advanced land degradation. Scientists still debate over what constitutes desertified land, but this is one of the most accepted definitions.

According to UN’s Agenda 21, desertification is, “Land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities.”

Using terms like “desert encroachment,” however, often conjures up misguided images of deserts that expand aggressively, colonizing the surrounding land. Even though bodies of sand can surpass their climatic limits, most desertification occurs through alterations in soil content, changes in climate, water levels, and lack of vegetation.

Causes of Desertification

Desertification results in continued degradation of land and of fragile ecosystems. But the major causes behind it are often variations in climate and intrusive man-made activities.

In addition to affecting human, plant, and animal populations, desertification also negatively impacts groundwater reserves, topsoil, and surface runoff. Drylands that suffer from water scarcity are also very limited in terms of wood and crop production, as well as forage and other ecosystem services.

According to the United Nations, overgrazing is the leading cause of desertification worldwide. Other factors are involved, such as climate change, straining sources of groundwater, urbanization, natural disasters, deforestation, and more. We will discuss each one of these causes below, as well as potential solutions against desertification.

Overgrazing

Many areas that are now turning into desert biomes deal with the huge problem of animal grazing. Where there are too many animals – livestock and otherwise – in one spot, the land takes longer to regenerate the plants. In turn, this hurts the biome and endangers the green glory of pastures.

Intrusive Farming Practices

Farming, in general, is a useful and necessary human activity. However, some farmers go overboard and strip the land of its resources by using it ineffectively. These farmers use up the natural resources of a specific area of land and they move on to another plot. After being stripped down of its nutrients, soil is far more vulnerable to desertification.

Deforestation

Desertification and deforestation go hand in hand. Without plants and trees, a biome has small chances of thriving or even surviving. The problem usually occurs when people move into a previously unlived area and the trees are felled for construction and other necessities. While deforestation is tightly linked to urbanization (see below), it’s also one of the main reasons why the planet needs us to start recycling.

Land Development and Urbanization

As mentioned above, human development can cause the disappearance of plant life. Urbanization can also cause soil issues thanks to the chemicals and other toxic agents people use that may harm the ground. Moreover, in urbanized areas, plants have less space to grow, leading to various levels of desertification.

Climate Change

One of the leading causes of desertification is climate change. With warmer days come longer and more frequent periods of drought. Consequently, desertification becomes more and more imminent in more areas around the world. If we don’t work together at slowing down climate change, huge areas of land will desertify. Over time, many of these areas could become uninhabitable.

Depleting the Land of Resources

Is there oil, natural gas, or mineral in an area of land? Sure enough, people will soon discover it and will mine it or take it out. Stripping the soil of its natural resources ends up killing the plant life. In turn, this initiates the process toward the area becoming a desert biome over time.

Natural Disasters

In some cases, natural disasters are responsible for damaging the land and leading to desertification. Drought, for example, is a force of nature that people can rarely stand against. In these cases, scientists claim that rehabilitating the land after natural damage is hardly possible.

Solutions for Desertification: Education

Introducing policy changes could be a potential solution against desertification, but not many countries follow them. However, education can be an important tool in developing nations. Education initiative can help farmers understand the best way to use the land. By teaching them sustainable practices, we make sure that we prevent more land from turning into desert.

Technology Advances

Unfortunately, preventing desertification is not always possible. In those cases, our only solution is turning to research and technological advancements. They can help us push the limits of our current understanding of desertification. Thus, we can find more methods that will prevent this problem from becoming epidemic.

Rehabilitation Initiatives

On the other hand, we do have some ways to rehabilitate the land that we’ve already helped desertify. Even though it is difficult to go back, we can do it with the investment of money, dedication, and time. Scientists claim that mimicking herds of grazing wildlife and a controlled movement of herds of livestock could help reverse desertification.


There’s no doubt that desertification is an incredible issue that needs immediate answers. If we take the time to address it now, we might be able to prevent other problems from branching out from it in the future. Taking a critical look at desertification will help us spur initiatives of reversal and prevention in an effective way.

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William E. Eubanks
 

I'm one of the main writers on the site; mostly dealing with environmental news and ways to live green. My goal is to educate others about this great planet, and the ways we can help to protect it.

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