Land reclamation is underway on a massive scale with many governments around the world planting millions of trees each year. In China, a massive undertaking is underway to stop the encroachment of the deserts. China is not alone. Desertification now affects fully one-third of the world's population -- and what's happening in Western China represents the largest conversion of productive land to desert anywhere in the world.
Desert storms from Central Asia are leaving a trail of destruction, changing once fertile land into sand deserts. Now Beijing is drawing a line in the sand.
The Chinese call it "yellow dragon." Koreans, "the fifth season." Each spring, the dust from China's northern deserts is swept up by the wind and whipped eastward, blasting into populated areas like Beijing. A choking blanket of particles coats houses, cars, and people. Hospitals become flooded with patients suffering from respiratory ailments. The dust clogs machinery, shuts down airports, and destroys crops, forcing thousands of rural Chinese off their land. Clouds of it blow all across Asia, carrying pollution and infectious disease. In Korea, the government recently considered declaring dust storms and desertification a natural disaster.
Overgrazing, deforestation, and drought convert land to arid desert, creating a layer of mobile topsoil. The Gobi desert by about 950 square miles per year - an area two-thirds the size of Rhode Island. Now, with the dunes within 150 miles of China's capital city, Beijing officials have initiated a massive plan to attack the problem.
The Green Wall Of China
The plan is known as the Green Great Wall - a 2,800-mile network of forest belts designed to stop desertification. Chinese scientists from the Ministry of Forestry believe the trees can serve as a windbreak and halt the advancing desert. In a recent report to the United Nations, Chinese officials predicted that the effort will "terminate expansion of new desertification caused by human factors" within a decade. By 2050, they claim, much of the arid land can be restored to a productive and sustainable state.
The wall itself will be made up of an outer belt - ranging from 775 to 1,765 feet wide - with a sand fence along the perimeter. Inside, low-lying, sand-tolerant vegetation, arranged in optimized checkerboard patterns, will create an artificial ecosystem to stabilize the dunes. A 6-foot-wide gravel platform will hold sand down and encourage a soil crust to form. The government has also funded research to explore the use of genetically engineered plants, chemical dune stabilization, grass strains bred in space, and even farming techniques that will allow rice to grow in sandy soil.
Can an expansive row of trees and some strategically placed grass really stave off an encroaching desertand desertification? Its worked before. In 1935, overgrazing and drought caused 850 million tons of topsoil to blow off the United States' southern plains, leaving 4 million acres barren and creating the Dust Bowl. To address the problem, the newly formed Soil Conservation Service introduced the Shelterbelt Project - a 100-mile-wide strip of native trees bisecting the country from Canada to Texas. In just a few years, it helped to reduce the amount of airborne soil by 60 percent.
Using history as an example, China has begun planting millions of trees but it is not working. Unlike the "dust bowl tree planting project" of the 1930's, China's deserts are too large and spreading too fast for tree seedlings that are too young and too small. Sand from just one storm can cover new seedlings in 3 feet of sand giving them little chance to get established.
Planting a wide wall of tall 12 to 15 foot tree saplings with well-developed root systems would have a better chance to survive the frequent layering of wind blown sands.