Deserts, which are found on every continent, stretch across more than ⅕ of the globe’s total land area. While many think of deserts as barren wastelands devoid of life, deserts are home to some of the most specialized organisms on the planet. Around 1 billion humans also live in deserts. Plants, animals and humans have adapted to these harsh environments, but that doesn’t mean they can survive anything. As human activities like agriculture and mining cause land degradation, deserts are getting dryer while lusher, greener areas are transforming into deserts through a process called desertification. In this article, we’ll define what desertification is, its different types, its causes and its effects.
Desertification is a type of land degradation where once-productive and thriving land transforms into dry, desert landscapes. Features include a loss of plant life, soil erosion, degraded soil quality, water scarcity and so on. The effects on plants, animals and humans can be devastating.
How is desertification defined?
Deserts are extremely dry areas of land that, according to data from National Geographic, get no more than 10 inches of rain every year. Because deserts are so dry, living things like plants and animals must adapt to the area’s harsh conditions. During long stretches without rain, many plant seeds can lie dormant until a light sprinkle of rain triggers fast growth. Animals, which can include camels, foxes, snakes, lizards, rabbits and rats, tend to be nocturnal, which helps them avoid the hot sun. Humans can adapt, as well. In fact, around 6% of the human population lives in deserts. Life in the desert can be very difficult as food, water and shelter are hard to come by. Heat, desert dust and dehydration can also harm human health.
Desertification may sound like it refers to the expansion of existing deserts, but it also means land degradation that causes harm to soil, water, plants, wildlife and so on. Desertification has happened throughout time, but in 1994, the United Nations recognized it as a serious issue. They established the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, which is the only legally binding international treaty that connects environment and development to sustainable land management. The treaty defines desertification as “land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas resulting from various factors, including climatic variations and human activities.” The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the UN body focused on climate change research, uses the same definition. Their 2019 special report on climate and land found with high confidence that desertification has increased in some drylands, while climate change will increase the risks from desertification.
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What are the types of desertification?
There are two main types of desertification: desertification as a natural process and desertification as a result of human activity. Because humans have such a significant impact on the climate, the types of desertification often v. Let’s explore both:
According to Britannica, most deserts form on the eastern sides of big subtropical high-pressure cells. These are wheels of wind that move clockwise in the Northern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the South. When moist air rises near the Equator and cools down, it turns into clouds and rain. As this air moves toward the pole, it releases its rain, but when it starts wheeling back to the Equator, the air starts descending. The air becomes warmer and more compressed, which does not allow for cloud and rain formation. Without much rain, the areas below become deserts. The world’s oldest desert is likely the Sahara Desert, whose origins remain a mystery. At its youngest, this North African desert could be thousands of years old, but many believe it’s around 5 million years old.
Humans are responsible for the second type of desertification. Without activities like poor land management, overconsumption, agricultural land expansion and so on, this type of desertification would not be as severe. According to Britannica, desertification affects four main areas: irrigated croplands, rain-fed croplands, grazing lands and dry woodlands. We’ll discuss specific causes and effects of human-driven desertification in the next section of this article.
Desertification is just one environmental issue we need to address. Here’s our article on 20 other issues.
What causes desertification?
Desertification has many causes that play off one another. As an example, experts talk about climate change and desertification as a hand-in-hand relationship. Climate change makes desertification worse, while desertification also exacerbates the effects of climate change. That means most of the factors causing desertification are driving – and reinforcing – climate change. Here are five specific causes:
When plants are exposed to grazing for too long or without rest periods, the land starts to degrade. This became clear in Mongolia in 2013. Known for its large grasslands, Mongolia has depended on animals like sheep and goats. Overgrazing has led to serious issues. In a study published by Global Change Biology, researchers discovered that overgrazing by sheep and goats degraded about 70% of the grasslands in the Mongolian Steppe. That meant overgrazing was responsible for 80% of the vegetation loss, while the remaining 20% was lost because of a decrease in rain. Desertification is making the Gobi Desert, a desert larger than France and Germany combined, grow.
Mining is the extraction of valuable materials and minerals like coal, gold and cobalt from within the Earth. According to research, around 40 million people are involved in large-scale mining, while 13 million work in “artisanal” mining. While mining has been essential to the economy, especially the economies of developing countries, it’s causing desertification. Specific consequences include deforestation, water and air pollution, soil erosion, increased dust, greenhouse gas emissions and so on. The impacts don’t stop even when mines are abandoned, which makes mining a complex and persistent problem.
Water extraction is when water is taken from a source for purposes like irrigation, flood control, drinking water and so on. Water is essential to life, but it’s possible to extract too much and cause serious issues. The over-extraction of groundwater, which is the world’s largest supply of fresh water, is one example. According to the Groundwater Foundation, groundwater depletion leads to issues like water scarcity, soil collapse and contamination from saltwater. All these issues have a severe impact on plants, wildlife and the land as a whole.
Deforestation is the clearing of forests to turn the land into something else, like farms, ranches, cities, grazing land and so on. When too many trees are destroyed, it affects the soil quality and soil erosion. Forests provide vital nutrients to soil, while their roots help hold the land together. When those trees are suddenly gone, the soil suffers. Forests, especially tropical forests, are also vital to the water cycle. According to Carbon Brief, clearing forests could lead to a dryer, more desert-like climate.
Want to learn more about deforestation? Here’s our article on its negative effects.
Wildfires can be frightening, but fire is part of the natural world. Vegetation has adapted to fires as part of their normal routines, but when patterns are disrupted, plants can’t adapt quickly enough. What disrupts fire? Climate change is one of the big culprits. According to research, climate change leads to warmer, drier conditions and higher temperatures, which extends normal fire seasons and makes forests and grasslands easier to burn. According to the IPCC, wildfires drive desertification because they destroy vegetation cover, increase soil erosion and degrade soil quality.
What are the effects of desertification?
Desertification has serious consequences for things like the environment, the economy and human health. Here are five effects:
One of the clearest effects of desertification is the loss of plant and animal life. When once-thriving habitats like forests and grasslands become deserts, the organisms that live there suffer. Places like the Amazon Rainforest are home to millions of species, some of which are only found there, while existing deserts also protect thousands of plants and animals. Desertification, which also makes deserts more hostile, threatens everything in a habitat.
Food and water scarcity
Deserts are famous for not having much food or water, so when these areas start spreading, it threatens the food and water security of even more places. Expert groups like the IPCC pay close attention to desertification’s effects on food and water scarcity, and the data is grim. In a 2023 policy brief, the OHCHR reported that between 2015 and 2019, at least 100 million hectares of land were lost, impacting food and water around the world. If desertification isn’t seriously addressed, 95% of the world’s land area could be degraded by 2050.
Desertification and poverty have a close relationship. According to the IPCC, desertification – along with factors like climate variability – will contribute to poverty, while climate change will worsen poverty for some dryland populations. Reasons vary, but in general, poverty gets worse when people can no longer grow crops or access enough water. It doesn’t help that those already living in poverty depend the most on agriculture, which desertification threatens.
Harmful health effects
Desertification harms human health in a few ways. The first is through food and water insecurity, but researchers are also raising the alarm about dust. According to an IPCC report, dust storms are becoming more frequent and intense. These storms carry harmful substances like pathogens and allergens over large distances, threatening the health of anyone in their path. Desertification can also contribute to water pollution and contamination, which is linked to several serious diseases like cholera, typhoid, cancer, liver damage and much more.
Increased forced migration
When productive land becomes desert, people living there often have no other option but to leave. Forced migration linked to climate change is becoming more common. According to Migration Policy, more than 1 million people in Somalia were displaced in 2022 because of drought. People often migrate within the same country, but if desertification continues to get worse, entire regions will become unlivable.
Can we fight desertification?
Deserts are part of the world’s ecosystems and far from the lifeless voids people often picture, but desertification is a devastating process we can prevent. Experts advocate for strategies such as better land and water management, improved soil quality, forest protection, different irrigation methods and so on. Anything that addresses climate change, such as a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, will also help combat desertification. With critical thinking and commitment, the world can hold back the desert.