Life, Europe

Soil to sand: Spain’s growing threat of desertification

Climate change and unsustainable land use could spell catastrophe for Mediterranean

Alyssa McMurtry  | 19.07.2019 - Update : 20.07.2019
Soil to sand: Spain’s growing threat of desertification Photo by César Wild on Unsplash


If carbon emissions remain unabated, Madrid will have a climate more like present-day Marrakesh by 2050, according to a recently published study by Swiss researchers.

The study by ETH Zurich and Crowther Lab suggests that if the world doesn’t band together within the next 11 years – “the point of no return” – to reduce CO2 emissions, the earth could be 2-2.5 degrees hotter within a matter of a few decades. In that scenario, Madrid’s weather is likely to increase by an average of 2.1° Celsius, with the hottest temperatures increasing by 6.4°C.

Already this year, Madrileños have perspired their way through record-breaking heat, with June 28 registering the hottest maximum temperature on record for the month of June – 40.7C (105 Fahrenheit), according to Spain’s national meteorological service.

Experts from the European Environment Agency (EEA) told Anadolu Agency that the most extreme climate scenarios also project precipitation decreasing by more than 40% in parts of Spain during the summer months by the end of the century, leading to longer and more severe droughts across the Iberian Peninsula.

And with at least 74% of Spain at risk of desertification (18% at high or very high risk), according to official data from 2008, could some parts of Spain come to look more like the Moroccan Sahara within our lifetimes?

“The process of desertification will never produce a desert. Desertification creates something much worse than that – a landscape formed by opportunistic ecosystems and land degradation,” explained Gabriel del Barrio, a researcher at the Experimental Station for Arid Zones (EEZA) in Almeria, Spain. “Deserts are formed over thousands of years by mature ecosystems and contain abundant biodiversity.”

Human activity is the main driver of desertification. The process is caused by the over-exploitation of limited natural resources that are slow and difficult to renew. Overusing the water supply is one major factor. The removal of vegetation is another. 

Life-giving activities like agriculture, when done unsustainably on dry, vulnerable land, threaten to leave swathes of the earth barren. According to the United Nations, each year, the world loses 24 billion tons of fertile soil, yet it takes hundreds to thousands of years for just one centimeter of soil to form. 

Still, the effects of climate change could end up being the straw that breaks the camel’s back in countries like Spain, making more and more land vulnerable to degradation.

“A rapid increase in temperature has major consequences for desertification. When the temperatures increase, just like people sweat more, plants transpire more, so water evaporates from soil and vegetation. These conditions weaken the plants, which makes them more vulnerable to plagues,” said Patricio García-Fayos, head of the Center for Desertification Research (CIDE) in Valencia, pointing to the Xylella plague that has been responsible for the destruction of thousands of trees in southeastern Spain in recent years.

“Even if vegetation doesn’t get hit with plagues, it gets drier and more susceptible to fires. This increases the frequency and intensity of forest fires. Then, after fires, more opportunistic, dryer plants can move into the area because the climatic conditions are harsher than normal. It’s a vicious circle,” he told Anadolu Agency.

To add to the challenge, EEA experts said that Europe, especially the south, is likely to be affected by more erratic precipitation. Drought is an obvious issue, but heavy rains can also cause floods and soil erosion that speed up the process.

According to research published in 2016 in the journal Science, unless temperature increases are held within 1.5C above industrial levels, the Mediterranean basin is likely to undergo dramatic changes, including expanding deserts and a loss of traditional vegetation, which haven’t been seen in the last 10,000 years.

“The Mediterranean region is highly sensitive because it is at an interface between a tropical region in Africa and a temperate region in Europe. It’s very easy to shift between southern air and northern air origins, so even a small change can have a very big effect,” said one of the study’s co-authors, Joel Guiot, who is a professor at Aix-Marseille University and a research director at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS).

Guiot’s study was published on the heels of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Since then, much of the optimism surrounding the deal has been deflated, especially with the departure of the U.S. from the landmark agreement.

“We have lost three years, and CO2 emissions have continued to increase. According to major studies, it’s still possible to keep warming below 1.5°C, but we have to act very quickly,” he added.

On top of the precarious location of the Mediterranean, the area has been exploited by humans since the Neolithic age, which brings further challenges to the region.

“Virgin Mediterranean landscapes don’t exist; the area has evolved with humans since the invention of agriculture. If people abandon certain areas for whatever reason, the land doesn’t just return to a pristine state. Its reaction is unpredictable, and that’s often when land degradation occurs,” said Del Barrio. 

A report published in late 2018 by European Union auditors found that between 2008 and 2017, the overall size of territory in Europe with high sensitivity to desertification increased by 177,000 km2 – an area as big as Greece and Slovakia combined. Within Europe, Bulgaria, Greece, Spain, Croatia, Italy, Cyprus, Latvia, Hungary, Malta, Portugal, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia have all declared themselves affected by the process of desertification.

The same report also criticized the EU for its “limited coherence” around the subject. As a response, the European Commission has started an investigation on soil degradation.

But for now, desertification is silently creeping into countries around the world, taking its toll on biodiversity, local economies and populations.

“Loss of land for agricultural production will enhance migration from land to cities because people will lose their economic basis, as we can already observe. Especially elderly people may migrate northwards, so the number of retired people from northern countries currently living in the Mediterranean area may decline,” said EEA experts in a written response.

Within Spain, García-Fayos predicts more people will migrate from the country’s interior, which is already facing massive depopulation, to coastal areas with less extreme temperatures, creating what he calls “demographic deserts.”

Del Barrio also sees compounding challenges for those who are most affected by the desertification.

“Desertification happens after people have invested everything they could to establish themselves in places with ephemeral wealth. For example, families migrated to Almeria in Southern Spain and bought land that was productive during 10-20 years. But when the land degrades, those families -- who have invested everything they have in land that is now worth nothing -- get trapped. That causes social problems and makes emigration difficult,” he said.

According to Del Barrio, while only 1% of Spanish land is actively being desertified at the moment, around 20% of already desertified land is undergoing the complex process of regeneration. But despite efforts in countries like Spain to regenerate lost land and prevent desertification, Del Barrio suggests that isolated actions will not be enough to battle the problem.

“My personal opinion is that if extreme climate change scenarios come to fruition and the economic model in which land is exploited and then left behind continues, then the entire Mediterranean could face a catastrophic situation,” he said. 

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