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22 May 2006

Ongoing Deserts Research at NSIDC

The United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification has declared that 2006 is the International Year of Deserts and Desertification. This follows a tradition of years dedicated to highlighting various scientific fields and topics.

Deserts are usually defined as arid areas that receive less than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation annually; cold deserts are deserts where precipitation mainly comes as snow instead of rain. Deserts and desertification are relevant to many high-latitude and high-altitude environments.

NSIDC scientists are working on several projects related to deserts:

Dust in snow
Dust deposition affects snow's energy balance during times of melting. Dust deposition is common in snowy mountain areas adjacent to desert plains. Changes in dust aerosols because of climate change may have an important effect in speeding up changes in snow cover. This, in turn, can affect flooding and water storage in reservoirs. NSIDC scientist researching the topic: Tom Painter

Land Cover Change
The high-elevation semi-arid environment of the Tibetan Plateau has experienced significant degradation in recent decades, partly because climate variability and human activities have changed land cover on the plateau. Because of the plateau's important role in the Asian monsoon system, land surface processes such as land degradation and desertification have far-reaching impacts on ecosystems, climate, the hydrological cycle, and human societies in most of the Asian continent. NSIDC scientists researching the topic: Oliver W. Frauenfeld, Richard Armstrong, Tingjun Zhang

Permafrost on the Tibetan Plateau is experiencing significant changes that lead to desertification and other far-reaching impacts to the land and people of the continent. Thickening of the active layer and permafrost degradation lowers the ground water table and increases surface water drainage, resulting in a drier surface and hence accelerating land surface desertification processes. NSIDC scientists researching the topic: Tingjun Zhang, Oliver Frauenfeld, and Richard Armstrong

Megadunes are unusual snow accumulation stripes formed on the East Antarctic Plateau. Conditions in this cold desert include low precipitation, equivalent to less than 5 cm (2 inches) of water, and constant wind out of a single direction. NSIDC scientist researching the topic: Ted Scambos

Blue Ice
In areas of extremely low or negative precipitation, ice sheets ablate away
all snow and firn, exposing old compressed ice below. Fallen meteorites appear in these "blue ice" areas as the ice ablates away. NSIDC scientist researching the topic: Ted Scambos

For more information about these areas of research at NSIDC, please contact Stephanie Renfrow at +1 303 492.1497 or

For more information about the International Year of Deserts and Desertification, visit