Geography Desertification
Sophia Burke, Mark Mulligan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 June 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0135


Desertification is a dynamic process that is observed in dry and fragile ecosystems. It affects soils, water resources, and ecosystems as well as human settlements and livelihood activities and is particularly important in areas where adaptation is difficult due to economic, social, or environmental constraints. Millennium Ecosystem Assessment 2005 (cited under Management), Ecosystems and Human Well-Being: Desertification Synthesis, reports that 10 percent to 20 percent of arid regions have become desertified, thus placing 2 billion people who live in the arid regions (in 2000) at risk of poverty. The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification defines “desertification” as “land degradation in arid, semi-arid and sub-humid areas resulting from various factors including climatic variations and human activities,” and, as of May 2014, a total of 196 countries and the European Union have ratified the Convention. Desertification is recognized as the outcome of a suite of processes and conditions rather than a singular process.

General Overviews

In recent decades there has been a growing international effort to combat this problem. This bibliography concerns recent research covering not only the physical drivers for desertification (climate, rainfall patterns, soils) but also the impact of human activity, including overgrazing, overcultivation, vegetation clearance, the creation of dams, and irrigation, as well as the impact upon humans, including migration, famine, and drought. The human impact on land degradation cannot be separated from the physical and environmental causes (Foley, et al. 2005). Because many interactive processes are driving desertification and a number of feedback processes (d’Odorico, et al. 2013), it is difficult to decipher how the causes and effects interact and to determine the appropriate response. However, our understanding of the causes and processes of land degradation has evolved over time, and as a result this has changed our understanding of desertification (Herrmann and Hutchinson 2005; Glenn, et al. 1998; Imeson 2011).

  • D’Odorico, P., A. Bhattachan, K. F. Davis, S. Ravi, and C. W. Runyan. “Global Desertification: Drivers and Feedbacks.” Advances in Water Resources 51 (2013): 326–344.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.advwatres.2012.01.013

    This reviews research on the drivers, feedbacks, early warning signs, and impacts of desertification.

  • Foley, J. A., R. DeFries, G. P. Asner, et al. “Global Consequences of Land Use.” Science 309.5734 (2005): 570–574.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.1111772

    Discussion of land use as a global resource and providing long-term ecosystem services.

  • Glenn, E., M. Stafford Smith, and V. Squires. “On Our Failure to Control Desertification: Implications for Global Change Issues, and a Research Agenda for the Future.” Environmental Science & Policy 1.2 (1998): 71–78.

    DOI: 10.1016/S1462-9011(98)00007-0

    This paper reviews the history of formalized efforts to combat desertification, looks at the lessons that should be learned, and identifies opportunities for establishing closer links between desertification and other aspects of global change research in biophysical and social science.

  • Herrmann, S. M., and C. F. Hutchinson. “The Changing Contexts of the Desertification Debate.” Journal of Arid Environments 63.3 (2005): 538–555.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.jaridenv.2005.03.003

    A review of how our understanding of the underlying drivers of desertification has changed, including climate variability, vegetation dynamics, social and economic processes, and the politicization of desertification.

  • Imeson, A. Desertification, Land Degradation and Sustainability. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2011.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781119977759

    This book focusses on how desertification processes operate at different scales (local to global) and how adaptive management decisions need to take this into account.

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