Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Surface disturbances: Their role in accelerating desertification


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. Anderson, D.C., K.T. Harper, and S.R. Rushforth. 1982. Recovery of cryptogamic soil crusts from grazing on Utah winter ranges. Journal of Range Management 35: 355–359.

  2. Ashley, J. and S.R. Rushforth. 1984. Growth of soil algae on topsoil and processed oil shale from the Uintah Basin, Utah, USA. Reclamation and Revegetation Research 3: 49–63.

  3. Belnap, J. 1992. Effects of wet and dry pollutants on the physiology and elemental accumulation of cryptobiotic crusts and selected rock lichens on the Colorado Plateau. Final Report, National Park Service, Washington Air Quality Division, December 1991. NPS/AQ-91, on file at Washington Office of Air Quality, National Park Service, Denver, Colorado.

  4. Belnap, J. 1993. Recovery rates of cryptobiotic crusts: Inoculant use and assessment methods. Great Basin Naturalist 53(1): 89–95.

  5. Belnap, J. 1994. Potential value of cyanobacterial inoculation in revegetation efforts. In Proceedings, ecology and management of annual rangelands, edited by S.B. Monsen and S.G. Kitchen, General Technical Report INT-GTR-313, USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station, Odgen, Utah, pp. 179–185.

  6. Belnap, J. and J.S. Gardner. 1993. Soil microstructure in soils of the Colorado Plateau: The role of the cyanobacterium Microcoleus vaginatus. Great Basin Naturalist 53(1): 40–47.

  7. Belnap, J. and K.T. Harper. 1995. The influence of cryptobiotic soil crusts on elemental content of tissue in two desert seed plants. Arid Soil Research and Rehabilitation 9: 107–115.

  8. Belnap, J., K.T. Harper and S.D. Warren. 1994. Surface disturbance of cryptobiotic soil crusts: Nitrogenase activity, chlorophyll content, and chlorophyll degradation. Arid Soil Research and Rehabilitation 8: 1–8.

  9. Beymer, R.J. and J.M. Klopatek. 1991. Potential contribution of carbon by microphytic crusts in pinyon-juniper woodlands. Arid Soil Research and Rehabilitation 5: 187–198.

  10. Brock, T.D. 1975. Effect of water potential on a Microcoleus from a desert crust. Journal of Phycology 11: 316–320.

  11. Bush, J.K. and O.W. Van Auken. 1991. Importance of time of germination and soil depth on growth of Prosopis glandulosa seedling in the presence of a C4 grass. American Journal of Botany 78: 1732–1739.

  12. Callison, J., J.D. Brotherson, and J.E. Bowns. 1985. The effects of fire on the blackbrush (Coleogyne ramosissima) community of southwest Utah. Journal of Range Management 38: 535–538.

  13. Campbell, S.E. 1979. Soil stabilization by a prokaryotic desert crust: Implications for Precambrian land biota. Origins of Life 9: 335–348.

  14. Campbell, S.E., J.S. Seeler, and S. Golubic. 1989. Desert crust formation and soil stabilization. Arid Soil Research and Rehabilitation 3: 217–228.

  15. Cole, D.N. 1990. Trampling disturbance and recovery of cryptogamic soil crusts in Grand Canyon National Park. Great Basin Naturalist 50: 321–325.

  16. Coleman, D.C., E.P. Odum, and D.A. Crossley Jr. 1992. Soil biology, soil ecology, and global change. Biology and Fertility of Soils 14: 104–111.

  17. Crawford, C.S. 1979. Desert detritivores: A review of life history patterns and trophic roles. Journal of Arid Environments 2: 31–42.

  18. Crawford, C.S. 1991. The community ecology of macroarthropod detritivores. In Ecology of Desert Communities, edited by G. Polis, University of Arizona Press, Tucson, Arizona, pp. 89–112.

  19. Doyen, J.T. and W.F. Tschinkel. 1974. Population size, microgeographic distribution and habitat separation in some tenebrionid beetles. Annals of the Entomological Society of America 67: 617–626.

  20. Dregne, H.E. 1983a. Physical effects of off-road vehicle use. in Environmental effects of off-road vehicles: impacts and management in arid regions, edited by R.H. Webb and H.G. Wilshire, Springer-Verlag, New York, pp. 15–30.

  21. Dregne, H.E. 1983b. Desertification of arid lands, Harwood Academic Publishers, New York, pp. 1–15.

  22. Ettershank, G., J. Ettershank, M. Bryant, and W.G. Whitford. 1978. Effects of nitrogen fertilization on primary production in a Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem. Journal of Arid Environments 1: 135–139.

  23. Evans, D. and J.R. Ehlringer. 1993. Broken nitrogen cycles in arid lands: Evidence from 15N of soils. Oecologia 94: 314–317.

  24. Harper, K.T. and J.R. Marble. 1988. A role for nonvascular plants in management of arid and semiarid rangeland. In Vegetation science applications for rangeland analysis and management, edited by P.T. Tueller, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, pp. 135–169.

  25. Harper, K.T. and R.L. Pendleton. 1993. Cyanobacteria and cyanolichens: Can they enhance availability of essential minerals for higher plants? Great Basin Naturalist 53(1): 59–72.

  26. Hendrix, P.F., D.C. Coleman, and D.A. Crossley Jr. 1992. Using knowledge of soil nutrient cycling processes to design sustainable agriculture. Journal of Sustainable Agriculture 2: 63–82.

  27. Ingham, E.R., D.C. Coleman, and J.C. Moore. 1989. An analysis of food-web structure and function in a shortgrass prairie, a mountain meadow, and a lodgepole pine forest. Biology and Fertility of Soils 8: 29–37.

  28. Jeffries, D.L. and J.M. Klopatek. 1987. Effects of grazing on the vegetation of the blackbrush association. Journal of Range Management 40: 390–392.

  29. Johansen, J.R. 1993. Cryptogamic crusts of semiarid and arid lands of North America. Journal of Phycology 29: 140–147.

  30. Kitchell, J.F., R.V. O'Neill, D. Webb, G.W. Gallepp, S.M. Bartell, J.F. Koonce, and B.S. Ausmus. 1979. Consumer regulation of nutrient cycling. BioScience 29: 28–34.

  31. Kleiner, E.F. and K.T. Harper. 1977. Soil properties in relation to cryptogamic ground cover in Canyonlands National Park. Journal of Range Management 30: 202–205.

  32. Knapp, P. 1992. Soil loosening processes following the abandonment of two arid western Nevada townsites. Great Basin Naturalist 52: 149–154.

  33. Lange, W. 1974. Chelating agents and blue-green algae. Canadian Journal of Microbiology 20: 1311–1321.

  34. Larmuth, J. 1978. Temperatures beneath stones used as daytime retreats by desert animals. Journal of Arid Environments 1: 35–40.

  35. Lesica, P. and J.S. Shelley. 1992. Effects of cryptogamic soil crust on the population dynamics of Arabis fecunda (Brassicaceae). American Midland Naturalist 128: 53–60.

  36. Loope, W.L. and G.F. Gifford. 1972. Influence of a soil microfloral crust on select properties of soils under pinyon-juniper in southeastern Utah. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 27: 164–167.

  37. Mack, R.N. and Thompson, J.N. 1982. Evolution in steppe with few large, hooved mammals. The American Naturalist 119: 757–773.

  38. MacMahon, J.A. 1987. Disturbed lands and ecological theory: An essay about a mutualistic association. In Restoration ecology, edited by W.R. Jordan, M. Gilpin, and J.D. Aber, Cambridge University Press, New York, pp. 221–238.

  39. Mayland, H.F. and T.H. McIntosh. 1966. Availability of biologically fixed atmosphere nitrogen-15 to higher plants. Nature 209: 421–422.

  40. Mayland, H.F., T.H. McIntosh, and W.H. Fuller. 1966. Fixation of isotopic nitrogen in a semi-arid soil by algal crust organisms. Soil Science of America Proceedings 30: 56–60.

  41. Metting, B. 1991. Biological surface features of semiarid lands and deserts. In Semiarid lands and deserts: Soil resource and reclamation, edited by J. Skujins, Marcel Dekker, Inc., New York, pp. 257–293.

  42. Peterjohn, W.T. and W.H. Schlesinger. 1990. Nitrogen loss from deserts in the southwestern United States. Biogeochemistry 10: 67–79.

  43. Romney, E.M., A. Wallace, and R.B. Hunter. 1978. Plant response to nitrogen fertilization in the northern Mohave Desert and its relationship to water manipulation. In Nitrogen in desert ecosystems, edited by N.E. West and J.J. Skujins, Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross, Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, pp. 232–243.

  44. Rychert, R., J. Skujins, D. Sorensen, and D. Porcella. 1978. Nitrogen fixation by lichens and free-living microorganisms in deserts. In Nitrogen in desert ecosystems, edited by N.E. West and J.J. Skujins, Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross, Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, pp. 20–30.

  45. Sagan, C., O.B. Toon, and J.B. Pollack. 1979. Anthropogenic albedo changes and the earth's climate. Science 206: 1363–1368.

  46. St. Clair, L.L., J.R. Johansen, and B.L. Webb. 1986. Rapid stabilization of fire-disturbed sites using a soil crust slurry: Inoculation studies. Reclamation and Revegetation Research 4: 261–269.

  47. Santos, P.F. and W.G. Whitford. 1981. The effects of microarthropods on litter decomposition in a Chihuahuan Desert ecosystem. Ecology 62: 554–669.

  48. Schimel, D.S., E.F. Kelly, C. Yonker, R. Aguilar, and R.D. Heil. 1985. Effects of erosional processes on nutrient cycling in semiarid landscapes. In Planetary ecology, edited by D.E. Caldwell, J.A. Brierley, and C.L. Brierley, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York, pp. 571–580.

  49. Seastedt, T.R. and D.A. Crossley, Jr. 1984. The influence of arthropods on ecosystems. BioScience 34: 157–161.

  50. Skujins, J. 1984. Microbial ecology of desert soils. Advances in Microbial Ecology 7: 49–91.

  51. Skujins, J. and B. Klubek. 1978. Nitrogen fixation and denitrification in arid soil cryptogamic crust microenvironments. In Environmental Biogeochemistry and Geomicrobiology, vol. 2., edited by W. E. Krumbein, Ann Arbor Publishers, Ann Arbor, Michigan, pp. 543–552.

  52. Stolzy, G. and A.G. Norman. 1961. Factors limiting microbial activities in soil. Archiv Mikrobiologie 40: 341–350.

  53. Terry, R.E. and S.J. Burns. 1987. Nitrogen fixation in cryptogamic soils crusts as affected by disturbance. In Proceedings, Pinyon-Juniper Conference. Technical Report INT-215, USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station, Odgen, Utah, pp. 369–372.

  54. Tidemann, A.R., W. Lopushinsky, and H.J. Larsen Jr. 1980. Plant and soil responses to a commercial blue-green algae inoculant. Soil Biology and Biochemistry 12: 471–475.

  55. Torbert, H.A. and C.W. Wood. 1992. Effects of soil compaction and water-filled pore space on soil microbial activity and nitrogen losses. Communications in Soil Science Plant Analysis 23: 1321–1331.

  56. Wallwork, J.A. 1982. Desert soil fauna, Praeger Scientific Publishers, London.

  57. Webb, R.H. 1983. Compaction of desert soils by off-road vehicles. In Environmental effects of off-road vehicles: Impacts and management in arid regions, edited by R.H. Webb and H.G. Wilshire, Springer-Verlag, New York, pp. 31–80.

  58. Webb, R.H. and H.G. Wilshire. 1980. Recovery of soils and vegetation in a Mojave Desert ghost town, Nevada, USA. Journal of Arid Environments 3: 291–303.

  59. West, N.E. 1981. Nutrient cycling in desert ecosystems. In Arid land ecosystems: Structure, functioning, and management, vol. 2, edited by D.A. Goodall and R.A. Perry, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, pp. 301–324.

  60. West, N.E. and J. Skujins. 1977. The nitrogen cycle in North American cold-winter semi-desert ecosystems. Oecologia Planta 12: 45–53.

  61. Wilshire, H.G. 1983. The impact of vehicles on desert soil stabilizers. In Environmental effects of off-road vehicles: Impacts and management in arid regions, edited by R.H. Webb and H.G. Wilshire, Springer-Verlag, New York, pp. 31–50.

  62. Zak, J. and W. Whitford. 1988. Interactions among soil biota in desert ecosystems. Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment 24: 88–100.

Download references

Author information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Belnap, J. Surface disturbances: Their role in accelerating desertification. Environ Monit Assess 37, 39–57 (1995).

Download citation


  • Nitrogen Fixation
  • Vascular Plant
  • Soil Loss
  • Nutrient Cycle
  • Soil Stability