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Deserts Spreading Fast Worldwide

Desertification is devastating farm production and the variety of plant and animal life in many parts of the world, according to Adel El-Beltagy, director-general of the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) in Syria.

?We continue to lose good land to desertification through wind and water erosion, salinity, urbanization and unsuitable farming practices,? says Brian Johnson, a British geneticist. He claims intensive farming methods, such as over-grazing, are degrading soils at an alarming rate and cutting their capacity to hold water. ?Soil degradation has a significant effect on productivity," says Johnson.

El-Beltagy says, ?Drought is the worst enemy of the poor.? He estimates that one billion people live in the world?s dry areas, which stretch across Central and West Asia and North Africa. The global population will grow from six billion to more than eight billion by 2020, El-Beltagy says.

?West Asia and North Africa face the most serious threat of water shortages,? he says. Johnson believes about 40 percent of the world?s agricultural land is severely degraded, destroying the habitats of animal and plant life and adds, ?Bird populations are under siege worldwide.?

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Large expanses of the world?s forests are in rapid decline and could be gone much sooner than expected, according to a new report by Dirk Bryant for the World Resources Institute. Much of what is currently designated intact forest is actually badly degenerated. Bryant says, ?A lot of it is illegal logging in areas of the tropics. [There are] good rules on the books by governments who are really making an effort, but they?re just not implemented on the ground.?

The WRI report is based on a two-year survey that covered North America, Russia, Indonesia, Central Africa, Chile and Venezuela. It found that areas believed to have intact forest land are now filled with roads, logging and mining activity. ?As we examined what we thought were still vast, untouched stretches of intact forests in the world, we came to the conclusion that they are fast becoming a myth,? says WRI president Jonathan Lash. ?We?ve mapped about half the world?s forests in detail and we?re finding that the closer we look, the less intact old growth and primary forest we?re finding. [That is considerably less in many places than we had estimated during our original mapping several years ago.

?Russia is a great example,? says Lash. ?[It is] the biggest forest area in the world in a single country. We found only a quarter of forests today are intact in larger tracts of old growth and primary forest.?

Clearing forests can help cause climate change, says Bryrant. ?They store vast amounts of carbon, which, if you clear them, burn them and degrade them, then go into the atmosphere and contribute to global warming.?

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A large number of bobcats and brown mountain lions that have roamed through the suburban neighborhoods of Arizona recently. A statewide drought, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls moderate to severe, has wild animals scrambling for survival. Arizona Game and Fish Department officials believe wildlife will increasingly search Arizona?s cities and suburbs for sustenance.?

?It?s just common sense,? says Rory Aikens, a Game and Fish spokesman in Phoenix. ?The food stuff out there in the desert and mountains is depleted, and here we are building up great lush vegetation around our homes, parks, golf courses and businesses.?Even during normal conditions, wild animals hunt nightly on the edge of Arizona cities for vegetation, garbage, pet food and pets.

Tucson and Phoenix attract coyotes and foxes. Falcons roost in downtown Phoenix skyscrapers. Javelinas (wild pigs) and bobcats prowl the state?s suburbs and mountain communities. An extra dry winter means these visitors have to penetrate farther into cities and hunt during daylight hours.

?During dry conditions our arroyos and canals become superhighways for wildlife,? says Aikens. ?You have coyotes sighted in downtown Phoenix and young mountain lions who are being kicked loose into the Prescott area to establish their own territory.?

This was the driest fall and winter in Arizona in more than 100 years, says Mike Staudenmaier, a National Weather Service science officer in Flagstaff. Only small amounts of snow fell on Flagstaff, while normal precipitation is more than five inches. Mormon Lake, the state?s largest natural lake, is dry.

Because of the lack of snow and rain, elk have been grazing on Flagstaff golf courses, says Ron Seig, the Game and Fish regional supervisor for northern Arizona. As spring advances and bears and other animals stop hibernating and start reproducing, the newly awakened and the young will join the foragers for food.

This winter?s lack of moisture is killing a large portion of the berries, nuts and grasses that bears and other animals rely on, says Tom Whetten, a Game and Fish spokesman in Tucson. Bears respond by foraging in garbage dumps, campgrounds and city backyards. Whetten says, ?They?re out there trying to earn a living after all.?

To find out where the winter went, read ?The Coming Global Superstorm? by Whitley Strieber and Art Bell, now only $9.95 for an autographed hardcover, click here.

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