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Desert climate is rapidly spreading across Central Asia

The mid-latitude climates of Central Asia are turning into desert climates, according  to research conducted by Qi “Steve” Hu and Zihang Han of the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. The researchers say the desert climate has expanded 60 miles northward since the 1980s.

Central Asia includes five former Soviet republics – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Sometimes it includes Afghanistan, western China, and parts of other neighboring nations. 

Due to its semi-arid conditions and potential impacts, Hu and Han wanted to determine if the region had any climate shifts. They found that the average annual temperature in Central Asia has increased by roughly nine degrees Fahrenheit when comparing the decades from 1960-1980 to decades from 1990-2020.

“The region is dry, so small deviations from the average or anticipated amount of growing-season rainfall can be devastating to the agricultural production and social stability of the region,” said Professor Hu. “It’s a place very vulnerable to climate change.”

The team discovered that while the lower altitude regions were getting less precipitation, the higher altitudes were getting more precipitation. This increase, however, was in the form of rain – not snow. Rain is problematic when compared to meltwater because rain is less sustainable and increases the likelihood of flooding. 

“That’s coming at the cost of your future water,” said Professor Hu. “If this continues, after maybe 20 or 30 more years, those glaciers and that snowpack could be gone.”

“Then you have just the summer precipitation, which is not going to be enough to keep up the water level in your lakes and your soil to sustain agricultural production in the growing season. So you’re possibly going to be in a one-way drought that you don’t come back from.”

Although the conditions are not identical, these findings are also relevant to patterns emerging in portions of the United States.

“This has some potential implications for the situation we’re facing in the west-central United States, especially around the Rockies,” Hu said. “That could undermine the availability of water resources in the next 50 years.”

The study is published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters

By Erin Moody , Staff Writer

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