, Volume 37, Issue 1-3, pp 39-57

Surface disturbances: Their role in accelerating desertification

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Abstract

Maintaining soil stability and normal water and nutrient cycles in desert systems is critical to avoiding desertification. These particular ecosystem processes are threatened by trampling of livestock and people, and by off-road vehicle use. Soil compaction and disruption of cryptobiotic soil surfaces (composed of cyanobacteria, lichens, and mosses) can result in decreased water availability to vascular plants through decreased water infiltration and increased albedo with possible decreased precipitation. Surface disturbance may also cause accelerated soil loss through wind and water erosion and decreased diversity and abundance of soil biota. In addition, nutrient cycles can be altered through lowered nitrogen and carbon inputs and slowed decomposition of soil organic matter, resulting in lower nutrient levels in associated vascular plants. Some cold desert systems may be especially susceptible to these disruptions due to the paucity of surface-rooting vascular plants for soil stabilization, fewer nitrogen-fixing higher plants, and lower soil temperatures, which slow nutrient cycles. Desert soils may recover slowly from surface disturbances, resulting in increased vulnerability to desertification. Recovery from compaction and decreased soil stability is estimated to take several hundred years. Re-establishment rates for soil bacterial and fungal populations are not known. The nitrogen fixation capability of soil requires at least 50 years to recover. Recovery of crusts can be hampered by large amounts of moving sediment, and re-establishment can be extremely difficult in some areas. Given the sensitivity of these resources and slow recovery times, desertification threatens million of hectares of semiarid lands in the United States.