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The geography of desertification



From Wyoming ("big plains"), Justin Carreno confirms that desertification is the great threat to the US: "Desertification is a very real issue in North America. Statistics say that approximately 74% of North American drylands are affected by desertification,which makes it the highest proportion of drylands so affected in the world. Wyoming has been referred to as equivalent to a third world country because of its lack of people and economic stimulus. This is partly due to the lack of water. The average annual precipitation is 14.5 inches and a humidity of somewhere between 20 and 50 percent. This lack of water, combined with overgrazing, poor irrigation, and overpopulation in some of its cities, promotes desertification. Wyoming and in particular the University sells itself by saying something to the effect "We have an average of 320 days of sunshine a year." This is certainly true, but the price to pay is that drought plagues the area. I've been here since January 2002, and it has rained twice (snowed much more, but not significant falls). When it rained, I snidely remarked to Wyoming natives, "is this the first time it's ever rained here?" The talk is now that this summer is going to be rough for agriculture.

The Wyoming Basin, an area defined by watershed area, encompasses southern Wyoming and goes up through the central portion, flowing into parts of Idaho and Montana. Laramie, where I am, falls in this area. Its statistics say it has an annual precipitation ranging from less than 10" to about 20 ". Sagebrush (short grasses) are characteristic and are present usually where there is lack of rainfall to support more complex vegetation.

As a Nutmegger (Connecticut native), I've experienced up to 65% annual precipitation and 70% humidity. When I was a researcher at the University of Connecticut Environmental Research Institute, one of my duties was every Friday to drive to sites all around the state where I would collect water samples for pollution analysis. Some of these sites were in the woods; if you didn't know where you were and someone said you were in Amazonia, you might believe him [not a botanist or zoologist! RH]. So this is undoubtedly a change for me. I remember summers where doing nothing more than writing this e-mail would make me perspire incessantly.

When people ask me what I miss about Connecticut, I say trees and water. One priority when the University was first established was to plant about 180 trees around campus. Today there are many more. It's interesting to see all the trees in the campus vicinity and look out to the surrounding barren plains. Well, until the Wyoming humidity rises, I'll continue to use a humidifier so I don't desiccate during my sleep".

My comment: Justin's report made me study the map of the area. Most of the Wyoming rivers flow into the Missouri, Laramie is just outside that area and, like nearby Cheyenne, close to the Colorado border. There is an old rivalry between Cheyenne and Denver, which must have a lot more water to make possible its startling growth. The report on desertification quoted in an earlier posting is in the southeast of Colorado and the west of Kansas. Are there maps of the progress of desertificatioin in the whole central area of the US? What about the Indians' claim that they will retake the area as the whites leave?

Ronald Hilton - 5/5/02


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