How Does Desertification Happen?

Desertification is the process by which areas of land are converted into semi-arid land and eventually desert. This can make arable land impossible to farm on, creating a huge problem in terms of poverty.

So, how does it happen?

There are a number of factors leading to desertification, but the overall idea is that human activity makes it worse but in some cases, human activity often makes it happen. That is, in some parts of the world, without human influences, desertification wouldn’t occur.

What do humans do to make it worse, though?

Mismanagement of the land is the direct human cause of desertification. Often, it is because of intensive farming projects. The topsoil is degraded through planting crops and the overgrazing of cattle. It becomes loose, almost like sand. Coupled with extreme weather conditions like droughts and heatwaves, the ground can become very dry.

During the Great Depression in the USA in the early 1900’s, farmers who were badly affected by the economic crisis ended up using intensive farming methods in order to get more profits. This loosened the topsoil (particularly in the Western States), and with successive droughts (which dried the topsoil) the land became unusable. With high wind speeds came dust storms and the area was named the Dust Bowl.

The process is worse in Africa, where poverty, malnutrition and extreme weather come together to make desertification possible. Most farmers there are subsistence farmers, who only farm for their own needs, rather than selling produce at a market. Because of poverty and malnutrition, farmers must continue to produce food and raise cattle at the expense of the soil condition. Droughts turn the ruined land into desert. When an area undergoes desertification, farmers will simply move into an area with fertile soil and the process begins again.

Global warming also has a part to play. With increased temperature and potentially decreased rainfall, droughts are more likely and therefore land will become desert more rapidly.

It has caused both the birth of new deserts and the expansion of existing ones. The Gobi Desert in China has been growing steadily because of this process for decades now. This will continue until human intervention is put in place or (more likely) when the desert “border” reaches regions where the weather and climate means deserts cannot be sustained, and so the growth of the desert is halted.

It’s a big problem regarding overcrowding and population increase – the more people we have, the more land we need to grow crops. There may be a time in the future when desertification becomes a serious threat to food exports.

So generally, it’s poor farming techniques, land mismanagement and droughts which cause desertification. The area must generally be prone to hot, dry weather for the desertification to be permanent, which often it is.


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