Sands of time running out for rare Canadian desert

Sands of time running out for rare Canadian desert
Sand dunes at Spirit Sands.

WINNIPEG, Canada - As desertification creeps into parts of the world, a rare stretch of sand in Canada's vast western plains is oddly doing the reverse - slowly sprouting with vegetation.

Tufts of prairie grasses are emerging throughout Spirit Sands, a stretch of dunes steeped in local lore in a popular nature park in Manitoba province. The sands cover only about four square kilometres (1.54 square miles) and in some parts, entire mounds have been completely overgrown.

Today, this small patch is the only desert in Manitoba and one of only a handful in all of Canada.

Once vastly bigger, it fanned out an estimated 6,500 square kilometers (2,500 square miles) - about one-fifth the size of Belgium - from the mouth of the Assiniboine River.

Located in Spruce Woods park west of the provincial capital Winnipeg, the dunes are the last vestige of an ancient river delta, exposed 12,000 years ago when a glacier melted northward and a massive prehistoric lake drained to the south.

"What we're seeing out there right now is part of natural succession... vegetation encroaching or moving into what used to be an open sand dunes area," said Jessica Elliott, head of conservation in the province.

A study in the late 1990s found that the desert had shrunk by as much as 10-20 per cent over each of the previous four decades, as vegetation encroached. Elliott points to several factors.

"The climate is different (warmer) now than it has been in the past, there is more precipitation, wind speeds are lower," she said, and "we don't have ... large bison grazing in the area or large, intense wildfires moving through the area."

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