Climate change could bury entire villages

Climate change could alter wind regimes drastically by the end of the century, causing desert dunes and sand seas to have an impact on human infrastructure, agriculture and homes, according to a new study from King’s College.

King’s researchers examined future wind regimes to predict the impact of morphing sand dunes in a new study published in Nature Climate Change. The invasion of these moving desert dunes has the potential to endanger transportation infrastructure, industry, agriculture and settlements, with entire villages potentially disappearing beneath sand.

Approximately 20% of the world’s arid zones are covered by desert dunes and sand seas. Dr. Andreas Baas and Lucie Delobel from the Department of Geography at King’s College used future wind patterns altered by climate change to determine the impact on these changing landscapes by analyzing data on the shape, migration speed and direction of mobile desert dunes around the world.

Previous climate change research has concentrated on heat and water to determine the effects on local environments. However, the researchers were able to predict the future effects of climate change on arid regions such as the Sahara, the Horn of Africa, the Southern Arabian Peninsula, South Asia, China and Australia by focusing on wind.

“Most climate change studies focus on water, including sea-level rise, glaciers and ice sheets, and much less has been done on changing wind regimes, which may be more important in many arid countries than things like sea-level rise,” said Baas.

According to the study, changes in wind patterns will accelerate the migration of sand dunes, change the direction of migration and morph the shape of the dunes, potentially leading to desertification in some areas and increased dust emissions globally.

In China, for example, the recently completed Hotan-Ruoqiang high-speed railway line includes 500 kilometers of track along the southern Taklimakan Desert. The project has already spent $295 million on sand drift mitigation measures. Sand dunes’ shifting migration patterns may render these investments obsolete. Railway projects in the Middle East and North Africa region worth $53 billion, as well as local road networks, would be impacted.

“We discovered that changing winds can change the direction of the movement of the dunes, causing sand seas to expand and increase dust emissions into the atmosphere. All of these changes have a significant impact on local economies, agriculture and households. The threat of increased dust emissions would also have an impact on the health of millions of people worldwide,” Baas said.

Sand could cover previously unaffected agricultural sites and settlements due to the changing direction of sand drift. The shifting shape of the dunes may also cause logistical issues for planned transportation networks and infrastructure, necessitating additional investment in mitigation strategies.