Desertification is rising in Central Asia: study

The study also found that mountain regions have also become hotter and wetter, which may cause the withdrawal of some major glaciers

June 21, 2022 by Sandipan Talukdar

Desertification, as warned by scientists, may increase due to global warming and climate change. A recent study bolsters this alert as it has found that desert climates have been spreading by up to 100 kilometers in Central Asia since the 1980s. The study was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters (GPL). The study also says that temperatures have been increasing for the last 35 years across Central Asia, including China, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Moreover, the study found that mountain regions have also become hotter and wetter during the same period, which may cause the withdrawal of some major glaciers.

Such changes are threats to the ecosystems and also to the people whose lives depend on them. Jeffrey Dukes, an ecologist in California, USA, commented on the findings, saying, “The findings are a “great first step” towards informing mitigation and adaptation policies.”

Central Asia has dry climatic conditions, with 60% of the region having a drier climate with infrequent rainfall. This indicates that very little water is available for plants and other species. Large parts of the region are vulnerable to rising temperatures, and the risk of droughts increases with increased evaporation in the soil. On top of that, climate change is also a factor. Previous research also showed that large swathes of Central Asia witnessed changes in average temperatures and rainfall patterns. However, these researches contained less localized information, according to Qi Hu, the first author of the GPL study. Qi Hu is an Earth and climate scientist at the University of Nebraska, USA. He further commented, “We need to know the important subtleties of climate change in specific areas.”

The study’s authors, Qi Hu and Zihang Han, used air temperature and precipitation data from 1960-2020. They divided Central Asia into 11 climatic zones. In their assessment, they found that since the 1980s, the 11 climatic zones having desert-like climates have expanded towards the north by not less than 100 kilometers, including southern Kazakhstan, northern Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and also China’s Junggar basin. This is a substantial expansion and has impacted adjacent climate zones, making them drier. They also found that in some places, the average temperature was 5 degrees higher between 1990-2020 compared to what used to be the case between 1960-1979. The researchers observed that the changing trend is that summers are getting drier, and rains occur mostly during winters.

Over time, this will lead to a dominance of plants that suitably adapt to hotter and drier climatic conditions. Concomitantly, this will impact animals depending on the grasslands of the steppe for grazing. Also, in some regions, a prolonged shortage of rains will lead the soils to become ‘dead soil.’

On the other hand, the team found a different situation in the mountainous regions. For example, in parts of China, the rising temperature has increased the tendency of precipitation to come down as rain rather than snow, the researchers added. Higher precipitation in the form of rain and rising temperatures will lead to further melting glaciers at higher altitudes, which is being witnessed already in many parts of the Tian Shan range of northwestern China.

“With a reduction in snowfall, glaciers in Central Asia will not replenish lost ice, meaning that less meltwater will flow to people and crops in the future,” commented Tory Sternberg of Oxford University in a statement.

Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.

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