Desertification is commonly described as the transformational conversion of fertile land into desert, primarily a result of extended seasons of drought, deforestation, or poor agricultural practices that extract soil nutrients, including irrigating with high saline waters.
According to climate scientists in a recent 2020 report, desertification across the Intermountain West is increasing rapidly as one biproduct of ongoing changes to historic, seasonal weather patterns throughout the region. With greater desertification comes longer periods of elevated temperatures and less rain; winters are shorter in duration with less snow. Drier seasonal conditions elevate year-around dangers for wildfires started by lightning strikes.
Increases in regional desertification reduces annual productivity for farmers across the Intermountain West. To offset crop reductions as much as practical each year, farmers require more water and chemical additives to be productive. With increased costs comes less profit and greater risks of financial failure. Increases in water usage draws down water tables in aquifers.
Applications of chemical nutrients and insecticides to enhance productivity over time have residual effects that further damage soil performance, crop harvests, and native regional ecosystems that support soil health. With climate change, the only recourse for farmers is to lessen the stress on agricultural soil by moving to more drought tolerant crops that can be rotated each year to help keep soil nutrients balanced.
Incorporating crops of Green Manure as part of a rotational planting strategy is also essential. This process tills cover crops of beans, peas, vetch, clover, and various grains back into the farmland in the autumn prior to the first freeze to return nitrogen and moisture to the soil - along with plant mulch that increases the soil’s health and fertility. Another constructive action by farmers is to subdivide large agricultural areas into smaller plots using drought tolerant trees and shrubbery around the new boundaries to break seasonal winds, dampen temperatures, collect moisture, and more importantly, to absorb and transfer carbon-dioxide and other atmospheric pollutants into the earth. Increasing agricultural forestry is a means to make farming more sustainable.
Similarly, with increasing desertification across the Intermountain West, traditional ranchers face decreasing livestock productivity each year - without investing heavily in imported water and food for their herds. With climate change, native grasses are rapidly being replaced by invasive species that provide little or no nutrients for cattle. Like farmers, ranchers across the region require more knowledge and better information from science to assist their livestock and business practices.
Outmigration of native wildlife to other regions is one of the earliest indicators that environmental land degradation exists and adequate food and water for these species are no longer adequate for their survival.
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