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Sands of Time: Earth's Expanding Deserts Can't Be Stopped
SAN FRANCISCO--Dust storms and drought don't get as much press as hurricanes or rising sea levels, but they threaten the world nonetheless. They could even hit the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
On every continent the number of dust storms is increasing. The U.S. Department of Agriculture -- once the second-largest bureaucracy in Washington next to the Pentagon, until Homeland Security bumped it -- is not yet ready to proclaim a "Dust Bowl II." But it has released photos that show the awesome similarity between the first and the putative second dust bowl.
Besides afflicting people with sundry diseases, dust bowls can ravage entire agricultural economies. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s forced thousands of "Okies" and "Arkies" to emigrate to California. And Chinese environmentalists have raised the alarm after a survey earlier this year found almost a third of China's land mass is now desert.
China is Losing the War on Advancing Deserts
China is now at war. Its territory is being claimed not by invading armies but by expanding deserts. Old deserts are advancing and new ones are forming, forcing Beijing to fight on several fronts. And, worse, the growing deserts are gaining momentum, occupying an ever-larger piece of China's territory each year.
Desert expansion has accelerated with each successive decade since 1950. China's Environmental Protection Agency reports that from 1994 to 1999 the Gobi Desert expanded by 52,400 square kilometers, or 20,240 square miles, an area half the size of South Korea. With the advancing Gobi now within 240 kilometers, or 150 miles, of Beijing, China's leaders are beginning to sense the gravity of the situation.
Overplowing and overgrazing are converging to create a dust bowl of historic dimensions. With little vegetation remaining in parts of northern and western China, the strong winds of late winter and early spring can remove literally millions of tons of topsoil in a single day - soil that can take centuries to replace.
Originally posted by dave_54
Forest cover is increasing in the U.S. and Canada. Currently the U.S. has the same amount of land covered by forests as 1900 and more than 1970. Of the increase in forest cover since 1970 about 80% is natural expansion, the balance is reforestation of agricultural and other lands. Recent peer reviewed inventories (conducted according the 1992 Montreal Protocols -- the UN sanctioned method of forest inventory) indicate not only is the amount of old growth forest increasing in California, there is more conifer old growth than ever existed historically.
Forest cover is increasing in Europe. Ireland and Scotland have large reforestation programs in place. Forest growth rates are increasing in Germany and Russia.
Beijing's Desert Storm
We have no money to move and, besides, who would have us?" says Su. "There's nothing to do but dig away the sand and wait to see what happens. Sometimes I dream of the sand falling around me faster than I can dig away. The sand chokes me. I worry that in real life, the sand will win."
Su and his neighbors are ethnic Manchurians who survive by cultivating subsistence crops and raising horses, goats and pigs. But this year violent sandstorms dumped entire dunes into the once-fertile Fengning county valley. Now most of the grass is gone and the Chaobai River stands dry. Besieged villagers say they have no idea where the sand came from. The scary bit? Su's almost-buried house is nowhere near the heart of China's rapidly encroaching deserts. It is just 160 km north of Beijing. Suddenly, rural Langtougou has become a barren outpost on the front line of a national battlefield.
Premier Zhu Rongji raised the war cry in this very village in May, after the worst sandstorms in memory buffeted Beijing. Zhu stood on Su's roof, pledging urgent measures to combat the encroaching sand. Then the premier left with his entourage, a huge government caravan, on 1,000-kilometer safari across China's desert hotspots. The next month newspapers ran daily stories about desertification as armies of tree-planters were mobilized. The 5th Plenum of the Communist Party Central Committee, starting Oct. 9, has put the issue near the top of its agenda. Zhu has called it "an alarm for the entire nation."