The Dust Bowl comes to Spain: desertification and soil erosion
Spain loses nearly 1.4 million tonnes of good earth every day due to soil erosion. The country is heading for a disaster like the one that hit North America in the 1930s: the Dust Bowl. Winds blew away the topsoil and what was left was a wasteland where nothing could grow. In Spain, all the ingredients of the lethal mix that led to the Dust Bowl are present. Fortunately, there is a glimmer of hope, some politicians are alarmed and will draw the world's attention to Spain on 17 June, shedding light on desertification and drought.
Any tourist driving across Spain will immediately see the vast acreage of crop fields and the immense expanses of land with 'bare', ploughed, reddish or brownish soil. A beautiful rural view for some, but an apocalyptic landscape for those who worry about climate change. The land swelters under a blazing sun, or as the Spanish say, un sol de justicia, literally a sun of justice. How apt that Spanish description will one day prove to be!
If climate action continues to be low on the political priority list, the sun will indeed decide Spain's fate like a judge. For climate change, large-scale deforestation, industrial agriculture and soil erosion, intertwined in a cruel knot, are already causing billions in losses. In the long run, soil degradation will lead to crop failure, forced migration, conflict, and finally ... war and societal collapse.
In this article I compare Spain's problems with the natural disaster that struck the North American prairies and Great Plains in 1934-36. There, the top layer of soil was blown away by storms and huge clouds of dust enveloped the land in darkness. This disaster, the Dust Bowl, was the result of decades of drought and soil depletion due to intensive agriculture (I also referred to the Dust Bowl in my post on the black soils of Ukraine).
The sky turns orange
On March 15 of this year, the Spanish sky colored bright orange. A huge dust cloud or calima, from the Sahara, lay like a blanket over the country and drifted toward northern Europe, like a foreshadow of what is likely to come. Don't clean your cars yet, was a main point on the radio to alert for more incoming dust. Airborne Sahara dust, however, is a fairly normal phenomenon, and the desert dust enriches nature with minerals. The Amazon Forest can't even do without it.
What is not normal is the alarming trend of desertification in Spain. The country where I've been living for almost 10 years faces increasingly hot temperatures, extreme water shortages and soil degradation. Of all EU countries, Spain is at the highest risk of becoming a desert by 2050. Water reserves are at 47% of their normal capacity (view weekly capacity here). While I edit this text (second week of May 2022), temperatures already 'promise' to reach 35°-40°C, well above average. El horno ibérico, the Iberian furnace, is running at full capacity.
On top of this, Spain is guilty of a failing water and soil management, which accelerates the desertification trend. In addition to the economic losses, the mismanagement has already led to human tragedy, clarified further on.
Desertification is not only the result of the lack of rain but also the disappearance of the biosphere that holds moisture, like a sponge. This includes not only forests but also soils. Soil is a crucial non-renewable resource. It is the living part of the earth's crust, in which plants and crops grow, and also performs other indispensable ecosystem tasks (such as fixing carbon dioxide).
Soil erosion is the process by which soil particles wash away with rainwater or blow away with the wind. It is a natural process that occurs in mountains and, in the very long term, causes "rejuvenation" of the landscape (a kind of peeling). However, due to human activity, erosion takes place at accelerated rates and is more widespread than ever. Soil erosion through deforestation was a contributing factor to the catastrophic collapse of civilizations in the past, not only in difficult, remote places like Greenland (the Vikings) or Easter Island (Polynesians) but also in lush Central America (Maya peoples). (The book Collapse, by Jared Diamond, is highly recommendable to understand links between human impact on nature and civilization collapse or success.)
In Europe, Spain is the leader in soil erosion. 66% of its land surface is undergoing erosion, half of which is in critical condition. On an annual basis, 500 million tons of soil are washed away. Per inhabitant that is 10 tons per year, or 27 kg per day of good earth that disappears. And all this while soil-forming processes take hundreds to thousands of years to transform barren land surface into fertile soil. In 9 of Spain's 17 regions, the critical limit of soil erosion (12 tons per hectare per year) has been exceeded, and in some regions, it is more than double (Catalonia, Andalusia and Cantabria).
Like on Mars
Soil erosion occurs when soil is exposed to the air, stripped of a protective layer of vegetation. It is the result of deforestation and industrial farming techniques - predatory agriculture - that deplete the soil, such as plowing, leaving it fallow for months at a time, use of fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, monocultures, inefficient irrigation, and the use of heavy farm machinery that cause soil compaction. (Read about how wasteful irrigation contributes to soil salinization, another form of degradation)
In a healthy soil, covered with vegetation, the tiny mineral grains (sand and clay) stick together by billions of microorganisms, humus and other sticky organic substances (a kind of saliva). The humus acts like a sponge and ensures the water-storage capacity of the soil. That ability, in turn, ensures that a long dry period can be overcome. But without vegetation, the soil moisture evaporates, the organisms die and the humus decays. The soil particles disintegrate and only the mineral fraction remains: clay, and sand grains, i.e., dust and nothing more. A dead substrate that only produces crops because it is fertilized and irrigated in an industrial way (not unlike a critically ill person on life-support).
The soil has lost its good properties, and the risk of erosion is enormous. Once this soil is swept away, by water or wind, the rock underneath is exposed, and the result is a lifeless rusted landscape like on Mars.
The Dust Bowl is coming
Disturbingly, Spain has a few additional problems: rain in torrential downpours, high winds, a climate-sensitive geographical location, and an added risk of erosion due to its rugged, mountainous terrain.
What if a downpour hits that bone-dry, dusty ground? The soil would be washed away because it consists only of loose sediment. And suppose a few dry years come, and the wind blows? The dust is blown into the air and huge dust clouds, much worse than this spring's calima, will darken the sky. Hello Dust Bowl.
Cows and Pigs
Deforestation is one of the causes of soil erosion. Forest clearing was necessary to make way for agricultural activities. Due to exponential population growth, steadily more forests are being cleared (today first world countries export deforestation mainly to the Global South). But meat consumption has also increased tremendously, requiring even greater agricultural production (and water). Forage for pigs, cows, sheep and chickens (grass, corn, alfalfa, grain, soy) is grown on 80% of the world's farmland, while meat accounts for only 20% of our ingested calories. The crops on the other 20% of the fields are intended directly for human consumption (vegetables, tubers, fruits, legumes, cereals, etc.), and provide us with about 80% of the necessary calories.
The Spaniard, meat-eater par excellence, devours at average 275 grams of meat per day, while only 300 grams per week (and only 175 gr of red meat) is recommended by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. In Spain, an 80% reduction in meat consumption would be much healthier and leave room for smaller but sustainable, high quality livestock production.
Nowadays, forests all over Europe are also shrinking due to the increased occurrence of wildfires and tree mortality. There is only one way to stop this treacherous domino effect: regenerate forests and plant growth everywhere. In addition to their photosynthetic capacity, forests, like soil, are sponges that store, retain and release moisture. Forests thus generate a cool and moist microclimate and increase localized rainfall.
It is thought that the Dust Bowl in America was not only caused by the predatory agriculture itself, but also by the disappearance of the moisture bubble generated by forests that were previously there. The clearing of these forests brought on a mega-drought, which was the final blow to the already depleted soils.
Swimming pools, mangoes and roundabouts
Between the start of summer in 2021 and March 2022, Spain has seen alarmingly little rainfall, a drying trend that has been going on for years and has many faces. I gathered a few loose observations:
- Inland (Castilla-y-León, Castilla-la-Mancha and Extremadura): Tragically deforested landscapes stretch along major highways as far as the eye can see. Huge irrigation systems water the monocultures as inefficiently as possible: from meters high above the crops, at the hottest hour of the day and in full wind.
- Sierra de Guadarrama (Madrid Metropolitan region): this winter there was hardly any snow on the mountains (only some irregular patches for a few weeks), while 10 years ago when I arrived there was snow from November till June. Snow reflects sunlight and helps cool the local climate. Disappearance of snow does the opposite.
- Costa Blanca on the Mediterranean coast: In some villages on this overexploited coast, a ban on watering gardens and filling up swimming pools was imposed years ago, when no water was coming out of the kitchen taps.
- Province of Málaga, Andalusia: Lately we feast on mangoes and avocados, grown on Spanish soil. This tropical crop requires far more water than there is in this dry region, and has taken the place of native crops.
- And perhaps the most visible example of water waste: The lush, manicured green lawns on roundabouts on road crossings that are watered throughout the entire summer.
The government has not yet succeeded in closing the water leaks in agriculture, industry, municipal and domestic uses by imposing a sustainable management. The price of water increased and illegal wells were dug, sometimes tens of meters deep. This water theft, recognized as a crime, is turned a blind eye. After all, citizens are not well informed about the water crisis and water rights.
One million illegal wells - a child had to die in one to give the wells worldwide attention - are the sad result of the failing water management. Environmental organizations like Greenpeace have been demanding for years that Spain better protect its hydrological heritage from illegal tapping and careless use (view points and maps of illegal use here). Through action, those voices are now being heard and a change of mindset is underway, albeit slowly.
Rising up from drought together
Nearly all UN countries signed the Convention to combat Desertification in 1994, including Spain, after previous UN conferences since the 1970s had failed to induce action. But luckily, some Spanish politicians, including Teresa Ribera (Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Ecological Transition and Demographic Challenge), are taking the issue serious. Spain will preside over this year's World Day to combat Desertification and Drought on June 17. In Madrid, they will shed light on drought and desertification, inform the public, create awareness, and highlight solutions. This year's theme is "Rising up from drought together".
Dry Hadley Cell
Awareness and action are indeed urgent. While the country and its resources can be better managed with some political will and collaboration, Spain feels the hot breath of the Sahara, in any sense.
The dry 'cell' of air (a 'Hadley cell') which encompasses the Sahara is getting broader and could engulf the areas north of the Sahara. This is due to climate change affecting Hadley circulation patterns (the way dry and moist air spread around the globe).
'Menu del día'
Spain has a long way to go and the road will be bumpy. Spain, as part of the EU, must participate to reduce global emissions so that the climate does not change catastrophically. As everywhere, large areas of land must be returned to nature. At the national level, ecosystem restoration and sustainable soil and water management policies must be implemented, as well as changes in eating habits. The latter can be done by promoting varied, tasty and healthy plant-based dishes in restaurants, supermarkets and office cantines. While Spain has a rich tradition of nutritious legume dishes, on the menu del día (day menu) in bars and restaurants there are usually no 100% vegetarian choices, the secundo (main dish) is always meat or fish.
All this and more is needed to make this country, which we hold dear, climate resilient, to give disasters like the Dust Bowl no chance and to secure long-term peace, healthy food and quality of life to those who call Spain home.
Or read one of these related articles:
Article by Kathelijne Bonne, geologist and soil scientist. I also write on good Climate News.
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Tena, Alejandro, 2020, www.publico.es, El consumo de carne en España, cuatro veces superior a las recomendaciones sanitarias y ecológicas, https://www.publico.es/sociedad/consumo-carne-espana-cuatro-veces-superior-recomendaciones-sanitarias-ecologicas.html
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A few keywords: dust bowl, dust bowl spain, illegal wells spain, soil erosion, spain soil erosion, soil degradation, hadley cell, heat wave, rising up from drought together, teresa ribera, desertification and drought
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