Here's What Will Happen When Deserts Become Dead Zones Because Of Climate Change

May 9, 2019

There’s no escaping the impact of climate change on our planet and it’s fantastic to see a global movement to actually do something about it surging forward and grabbing the attention of our mainstream media worldwide. National leaders are under pressure from generations young and old to put measures in place that will halt the current trajectory that threatens a million species across ecosystems. Here at Peaceful Dumpling, we are in full support.

One habitat in particular that gets little attention is the desert. Considered to be the wrath that follows a drought, deserts are actually an integral part of earth’s great wilderness, found around the world and breathtaking in their glory to those who take the time to appreciate these whispering wonderlands.

Barren stretches that can be hot or cold depending where on the planet they’re found, deserts are characterized by low levels of precipitation and sparse vegetation that mean only the toughest can survive. But they’re also incredibly fragile; resources are precious and growth is slow. Unlike rainforests, which are rich and diverse in species (fondly referred to by some as the ovaries of the Earth), deserts see far fewer species calling them home. But home it is, to an important few that are specially adapted by means of a waxy cuticle to resist waterloss or the large ears of the fennec fox that allow them to capture sound from miles away in the wide, open desert.

Our deserts face a myriad of threats from cactus theft to human exploitation, but nothing compares to the crisis we have on our hands in terms of the warmer temperatures that threaten these ecosystems already living on the brink. Akin to the coral reefs that we see bleaching in vast stretches across our shallow seas, life in the desert too is life on the edge. There’s little room for fluctuations in these sensitive spaces where even the smallest shifts can have devastating consequences.

As temperatures climb ever higher, desert dwellers are forced further into temperate zones in search of life’s holy trinity of food, water and shelter. As they migrate in the hope of colonizing new terrain, they are faced with the epic mission of outcompeting others already filling the niche they’re hoping to conquer. It’s fight or flight, only the flight in this scenario is a punctual demise. If there’s one thing we know about nature, it’s that only the fittest survive.

As species evolve from one morphology to the next, they do so operating in synergy with their environment: adjusting themselves based on the pressures and niches found exclusively in the habitat they are trying to dominate. The problem lies, however, in the microscopic time frame that man-made climate change thrusts upon us all. Evolution is a marvelous thing, but it’s no overnight process.

One place struggling to keep up is the American Southwest. A breathtaking sight to behold, with inky night skies and red rocks that match the sunsets, it’s changing rapidly and its species diversity threatened. Research shows that seedlings of several species of desert flora are propagating at higher elevations (and cooler climates) which threatens the foundations of the food chain upon which everything else relies. Joshua Tree National Park could be gone in as little as a couple decades as its iconic trees struggle to battle temperature extremes and seedlings search for respite higher up in the California wilderness.

We’re also seeing an unprecedented loss of birdlife. A massive UC Berkeley study reported a 42% reduction in the number of species visiting their survey sites in the Mojave Desert (which is larger than the state of New York!) over the past century caused by a climate-change-induced reduction in annual rainfall levels. Meat-eating raptors were noted as having the most dramatic decline. This includes the American kestrel, turkey vulture, sharp-shinned hawk and prairie falcon. Other, rarer birds including the red crossbill and Lawrence’s goldfinch are now even more elusive.

But it’s not just the strange looking vegetation and lone critters scuttling away from your periphery that are losers in the fight against a changing climate; there’s an undeniable impact on the people living in and around deserts. From the Bedouins and Maasai of Africa to the Native Americans of the southwestern United States, the deserts are home to special communities adapted to life on the edge. They also offer arguably some of the most tranquil spaces for a respectful getaway from the mania of urban life for those of us fortunate enough to have the means to experience them. I’ve done some of my greatest thinking in the wild, wild west and imagining it void of its delicate complexity sends shudders down my spine.

Not that you needed another reason, but next time you’re taking action to combat climate change – no matter how big or small – spare a thought for our deserts and all those who call them home.

Also by Kat: Vegan Farms Offer A Surprising Benefit For Climate Change—& Human Health

How To Inspire People To Protect The Environment, According To Sir David Attenborough

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Kat Kennedy is an Arizona-based physiology doctoral student and holistic health advocate writing about science, health, and her experiences as a third culture kid and global nomad. She's @sphynxkennedy everywhere.


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