Is desertification on the increase?

Sep 13, 2013
Is desertification on the increase?

Fighting desertification will require a better understanding of its drivers of this process, with a little help from a new tool to study how dry regions evolve

News of increased has made headlines. Yet this process is not well understood. The term desertification itself, "is a bureaucratic word that appeared after the Sahel drought of the 1970s," explains Juan Puigdefabregas, emeritus professor at the Arid Regions Research Station (EEZA), located near Almeria in Spain. "[Desertification] has been associated with and degradation, but we now appreciate that there has never been a case in which desertification has been associated with change. We now know that human impacts are always all or part of the story."

However, we do not know enough about how the world's are evolving. Puigdefabregas has developed software to inject some evidence into this debate. The DeSurvey desertification surveillance system toolbox is designed to provide "tools to assess the status of desertification in a region or a country, at an appropriate spatial resolution," he tells He hopes that ultimately, it will help develop a clearer and more ecologically-based idea of desertification

The system uses a wide range of data, from climatic to economic. It produces three types of output: maps of and land use, an analysis of the external forces that might be causing land damage, and a facility to allow future land changes to be examined. These outputs "have been validated successfully in the field in 15 areas around the world."

This tool makes it possible to see whether land is deteriorating, improving or staying unchanged. In turn, this allows policy and management of dry land to be better informed. In addition, it allows users to look at the history of desertification in specific areas.

Puigdefabregas explains that this work makes use of free, public data because of the shortage of useful local data on specific . Phil O'Keefe, professor of geography at Northumbria University in the UK, who has worked extensively on desertification in the Sahel and elsewhere, confirms the poor state of data on the subject. He welcomes tools such as those developed by the project, but points out that in the past 15 years, "glaciers have been sexier than deserts." This explains, in his view, why the subject is getting steadily less attention.

So far, the tool's main users are government bodies with an interest in drylands issues. NGOs are another user group. Puigdefabregas expects the user base to expand as it becomes more effective. It is being used in Inner Mongolia and its scope in Mozambique, Brazil and Morocco is being expanded with the addition of remote sensing data in a joint venture with the European Space Agency. In Europe, this project—which has been funded by the EU—has been applied in Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal.

This approach is one step towards the ultimate goal of understand how desertification works. However, "it requires some time to develop quantifiable drivers for desertification and its impact on food security," comments Chandra Biradar, head of geographical information systems at ICARDA, the International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas, in Amman, Jordan, which may provide remote sensing data for the project. He believes that this approach will be essential if the design decision support system (DDSS) derived from the project is to become a viable tool for high-impact decision-making.

Explore further: Two thirds of Chile faces desertification

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Two thirds of Chile faces desertification

Jun 18, 2013

Two thirds of Chile's territory is facing desertification in which the bone-dry Atacama Desert grows by over a meter (3.3 feet) a day, President Sebastian Pinera warned.

Land degradation causes up to 5% loss in farm output

Apr 09, 2013

Loss of land through desertification and drought costs up to five percent of world agricultural gross domestic product (AGDP), or some $450 billion (340 billion euros), every year, said a study presented ...

China may need 300 years to beat desertification

Jan 05, 2011

Huge population pressures, scarce rainfall and climate change have made China the world's biggest victim of desertification, a problem that could take 300 years to reverse, state media said Wednesday.

Satellite data instrumental in combating desertification

Oct 07, 2009

With land degradation in dryland regions continuing to worsen, the UN Convention to Combat Desertification has agreed on scientist-recommended indicators for monitoring and assessing desertification that signatory ...

Recommended for you

More, bigger wildfires burning western US, study shows

3 hours ago

Wildfires across the western United States have been getting bigger and more frequent over the last 30 years – a trend that could continue as climate change causes temperatures to rise and drought to become ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

There's something ancient in the icebox

Glaciers are commonly thought to work like a belt sander. As they move over the land they scrape off everything—vegetation, soil, and even the top layer of bedrock. So scientists were greatly surprised ...

Clean air: Fewer sources for self-cleaning

Up to now, HONO, also known as nitrous acid, was considered one of the most important sources of hydroxyl radicals (OH), which are regarded as the detergent of the atmosphere, allowing the air to clean itself. ...

Hackathon team's GoogolPlex gives Siri extra powers

( —Four freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania have taken Apple's personal assistant Siri to behave as a graduate-level executive assistant which, when asked, is capable of adjusting the temperature ...

Better thermal-imaging lens from waste sulfur

Sulfur left over from refining fossil fuels can be transformed into cheap, lightweight, plastic lenses for infrared devices, including night-vision goggles, a University of Arizona-led international team ...