Today’s Word: Desertification

Most people know what deforestation is, but how about desertification? They’re related. Let’s take a walk across the planet and even into space!

Desertification (de·sert·i·fi·ca·tion) is:

1. the processes by which an area becomes a desert.
2. the rapid depletion of plant life and the loss of topsoil at desert boundaries and in semiarid regions, usually caused by a combination of drought and the overexploitation of grasses and other vegetation by people.

Simply put, desertification is the gradual transformation of habitable land (think food, shelter, and water) into desert (think less food and water, as as a result less shelter). Desertification is usually caused by climate change or by destructive use of the land often a result of deforestation. Did you know that there are dust storms in Korea are the result of rapid desertification in China?

Why does desertification matter?

Desertification matters because it is one cause of our earth’s temperature rising. How does this happen? It’s called albedo. I suppose Today’s Word is actually a two-fer because albedo is an important concept.

Albedo is defined as the ratio of the light reflected by a planet or satellite to that received by it. In other words, how much of our planet is covered with dark stuff (like oceans) versus light stuff (like ice). The light stuff reflects sunlight back away from the planet while the dark stuff holds more heat. Think of a hot summer day. Would you prefer to get into a white car or a black car? Black cars are always hotter because they hold more of the heat than a white car does.

Here’s a little clip from NASA which graphically shows the sun’s rays reflecting off of different parts of the earth.

OK, so what does all this have to do with desertification and the state of our planet?

When you remove the plant life from a given region of the earth, the land under that earth will be colored based upon the makeup of the underlying ground. If it’s light, like gravel or sand, it’s not a bad thing (unless you want to grow something on it). If it’s dark, like soil or clay, it’s definitely a bad thing because the more dark mass that covers the earth because dark earth holds heat which is not reflected back away from our planet. There is a natural balance on our planet of that light and dark stuff. We are throwing off that balance. How? The things we are doing is assisting in creating more dark stuff and less light stuff.

What causes desertification? Well, deforestation for one. A study by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) showed that between 1980 to 1990, the world’s tropical forests were reduced by an average of 38 million acres each year! In the 1990’s, it’s even worse: more than 14 billion acres per year were destroyed and more than 5 million acres were advisably degraded.

Right now, by the time you have finished reading thus far in this post, thousands of acres of forest have been destroyed worldwide.

Another outcome of deforestation and desertification is flooding in that there is not as much stuff (trees, brush, thick plant life) sitting on top of the soil hold the soil together. All those planty things soak up excess amounts of water which happen when it rains heavily (or from hurricanes and the like). Additionally, trees breathe in the bad stuff in the air and expel good stuff back into it. In short, trees help clean the air we breathe and hold the top layer of the planet together.

If you’re into statistics, you can go here and tickle yourself pink looking at the charts.

So, what causes deforestation? That would be where we come in. Deforestation can be done through ranching (which usually follows), logging, and a variety of other human methods. In some places, they are using fires to do the deforestation (which release a huge amount of CO2, another planet warmer), creating a double whammy of hot, hot, and more hot places across the planet.

There are many ways to slow the growth of desertification, but it is unlikely to happen because, as with all things, it comes down to money. People in poor countries want to eat and mega-corporations want to continue to scorch the earth for massive profits.

By the way, the use of biofuels increases desertification in that many new forest fields are being cleared to grow the grains which are used to make those biofuels. As more and more of the countries on the planet are mandating and funding biofuels, there is a great impact in many areas of our lives, not just from a climate perspective but that crops are now being grown to feed our cars and not us.

What can be done? Well, again, this is where we come in. If every person takes one small step, makes one small change, that will collectively make a huge difference. Consider the following:

  • Look for alternatives to wood when doing home projects. Looking for eco-friendly woods is a good start.
  • Buy local! What products (wood based or not) are from your area? Those products didn’t come from half a world away which will save transportation costs and more CO2 being released into the atmosphere.
  • Sign on to stop junk mail! We managed to stop junk calls coming into our homes and cell phone, it’s past time to stop junk mail. Sign this petition to let Congress know you neither want nor need junk mail.
  • Plant a tree. It’s good exercise! If you don’t have a place to plant one of your own, join in a community effort.
  • Can’t help physically plant a tree? Ok, do it virtually and help this organization get their matching funds so they can do all the work. It just takes a click.
  • Go to this site and read about the many amazing things you can do with just a few clicks.

You can make a difference. Remember, all it takes is one little change by you and you contribute that much more to helping the planet – the planet which feeds, waters, and clothes us, gives us shelter and sustains our lives.

Ok, there’s Today’s Word.



  1. Zooey said,

    May 3, 2008 at 1:31 am

    Impressive, MizzJ. I’ll be checking out those sites after finals.

  2. libra said,

    May 3, 2008 at 6:18 pm

    The “funny” thing about planting trees… When I first came here (35 yrs ago), my husband’s yard consisted of two apple trees, one maple, one very old oak and lots and lots of lawn. Very English, except you can’t, really, grow the English kind of lawn in Virginia. And I missed my trees; there were lots of trees in Poland, where I grew up. So, over the 35 years, we kept planting trees and bushes – the decorative ones and the aromatic ones and the fruitful ones. Not only is our back yard more like the Secret Garden now and a pleasure to be in, but there’s also an unplanned-for gain: mowing the grass (and burning gas) used to take two four-hour days. Now, it takes maybe 3 hours, even though my husband is 84 and limps a bit (hip replacement), so pushing that mower is slow. Less work, less gas, all because we have more trees 🙂

  3. Keith Ackermann said,

    May 15, 2008 at 12:12 am

    Global warming is a problem that will take care of itself.

    The complexity of the biosphere is beyond our ability to understand in total, mainly because of the timeframe in which it exists.

    One thing is clear: its existance predates our existence, and it is very good at survival. We ar a blight on the biosphere and most likely will be dealt with accordingly unless we become less… blighty.

    All that it takes to neutralize us would be, say, the disappearence of a critical species… such as bees. There are any number of weapons it can use, and it will.

    The planet will be fine.

  4. Hans said,

    May 31, 2008 at 10:59 pm

    Ever read Mark Riesner’s Cadillac Desert? Mainly US based, but telling of what would come and what we are now seeing “unexpectantly” in the SE where nuclear plants are facing shutdown due to low cooling water levels.

  5. MsJoanne said,

    May 31, 2008 at 11:29 pm

    I haven’t, Hans. Thanks for the info!

    I hadn’t realized it had gotten that bad.

    Dust bowl here we come. It’s going to get ugly.

    And the planet will definitely be fine…whether we are amongst the living things, that’s another story.

  6. Hans said,

    June 1, 2008 at 1:35 am

    on nuke plants & water used to only be one article around, but now easier to locate many.

    Bee Colony Collapse Disorder can be found anywhere and there are even TV commercials out there. kinda scary

    and further on water issues, one might be interested to learn about John Wesley Powell, the first explorer down the Grand Canyon and what his ideas were for setting state lines based on watershed vs simple line demarcation. It seems this has reared it’s ugly head in the confrontation brewing between Georgia and Tennesse(?) over border disputes and access to the river.

  7. August 3, 2010 at 8:55 pm

    Really Good Work…. You Helping People A lot It’s not that the health insurance companies don’t see how difficult they are making it for families to get access to healthcare.

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