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Desert/Arid Land

Deserts and arid lands cover approximately 1/3 of the earth’s land surface. These barren landscapes commonly experience little or no rainfall and are home to highly specialized flora and fauna able to withstand long periods without water. Most of the dominant animals are burrowers and nocturnal. The Sahara in North Africa is the largest desert while the Antarctic is the most inhospitable and desolate.

Arid Deserts, sometimes called dry and hot deserts, have warm winters and long, hot summers with extreme daily temperature fluctuations and short bursts of rain that evaporate quickly. Typical vegetation includes low trees, prostrate shrubs, cacti and agave as soils tend to be shallow, coarse and well-drained. These hot and dry ecosystems are found at the lower latitudes in the Americas, Africa, South Asia and Australia. Semi-Arid Deserts have more marked seasons (less severe summers and more precipitation) and occupy the higher latitudes of North America, Europe, Russia, and North Asia.

Coastal Deserts, on the western edge of the continents, experience short, cool winters and long, warm summers, and vary from extremely low to moderate rainfall. These deserts have fine, porous soils which support salt-tolerant shrubs and grasses, and are home to variety of insects, reptiles and birds. Cold Deserts are often covered by snowfields (Antarctica and Greenland) experiencing harsh winters (moderate to high precipitation) and short summers. In some places, the snowmelt exposes heavy, saline soils where only the hardiest of flora and fauna can survive.

“The drylands and deserts of the world have been and are being damaged and made less productive by mismanagement. The causes of desertification are myriad and often interconnected: overgrazing; overcutting for firewood and timber; inappropriate farming, poor irrigation management, leading to problems with salinity, alkalinity, and waterlogging; mining; construction of highways and utility corridors; fire suppression; military operations; air pollution; the introduction of exotic animals and plants; recreational activities, particularly off-road vehicle recreation; industrial projects; climate change; housing; and urbanization.”
A Guide for Desert and Dryland Restoration


Australian Arid Lands Botanic Gardens
The objective of the Australian Arid Lands Botanic Garden is a pre-eminent facility where research, education and the display of plant biodiversity from the southern arid zone of Australia is centred.

BBC Living Deserts for Children
Deserts have less than 60cm of rain a year. In some it hasn’t rained for years. You might think a desert is just sand, but plants and animals have evolved to withstand the harsh conditions. Click the buttons to meet these great survivors.

Desert USA – The Ultimate Desert Resource

Desert Restoration – Steps towards Success
The challenges we face in restoring deserts and dry lands are daunting. They include: understanding the causes and effects of dry land degradation, developing simple, cost effect strategies and methods for restoring dry lands in a wide range of habitats and uses, and demonstrating sustainable resource management practices that can improve quality of life and minimize adverse effects of current and future activities.

Human-Induced Changes in Desert Ecosystems
Large parts of the Mojave and Colorado desert (see chapter on Southwest) ecosystems have been affected by humans and their activities, especially in the last 100 years. Urbanization, agriculture, off-highway vehicle use, construction of roads and utility corridors, livestock grazing, and military training activities have all created measurable changes in the structure and stability of the ecosystem.

FAO Desertification
The FAO Web site on desertification aims to assist national, regional and international stakeholders and networks involved in sustainable development of drylands and in particular in the implementation of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD).

Negev Desert
The Negev Desert has the shape of an inverted triangle with its summit in Eilat on the Red Sea and its base along a line that connects the seashore city of Gaza to the oasis of Ein Gedi. With a maximum length of 250 kilometers from the north to the south and a minimal width of 125 kilometers from the west to the east, this desert covers an area of more than 12,000 square kilometers.

Survey of Economic Plants for Arid and Semi-Arid Lands
SEPASAL is a database and enquiry service about useful “wild” and semi-domesticated plants of tropical and subtropical drylands, developed and maintained at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. By “useful” we mean plants which humans eat, use as medicine, feed to animals, make things from, use as fuel, and many other uses. We focus on drier parts of the world because these are home to one sixth of the world’s population, in some of the poorest countries.

United Nations Committee to Combat Desertification
The international community has long recognized that desertification is a major economic, social and environmental problem of concern to many countries in all regions of the world. In 1977, the United Nations Conference on Desertification (UNCOD) adopted a Plan of Action to Combat Desertification (PACD). Unfortunately, despite this and other efforts, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) concluded in 1991 that the problem of land degradation in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas had intensified, although there were “local examples of success”.

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