Sand Dunes

Sand Dunes

How climate change is altering the landscape in the desert Southwest: Human induced climate change is caused by the release of green house gases, including carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH3), nitrous oxide (N2O), as well as rapid deforestation. Although climate change is a global phenomenon, the regional impacts vary around the globe. In the Southwestern United States, climate change is leading to drier, hotter conditions which have consequences for both ecosystems and human communities (US Environmental Protection Agency, 2011,

The following is an example of how climate change is impacting tribal lands. More specifically, this case addresses sand dune migration which is a landscape-scale consequence of climate change. This brief, true story explains some of the challenges to infrastructure and livelihood already being felt by one family on the Navajo Nation.

Colorado Plateau map. Courtesy of Northern Arizona University's Cline Library.
The Teesto Dunes:
Let's visit a family in the community of Teesto, Arizona on the Navajo Nation. Teesto is 44 miles north of Winslow, AZ. The Navajo Nation is the largest tribe in the United States and their land covers about 17 million acres in Arizona, Utah and New Mexico approximately the same size as the state of West Virginia. This area is part of a larger region of the United States known as the Colorado Plateau.

Teesto is arid, with scattered plants and few trees. The family has lived in the area for generations. They notice the environment around them changing. Spring is coming earlier and plants are blooming sooner. Streams and water wells no longer flow as they did in the past. In the region, scientists report that the area is experiencing drought and desertification. This means the area is getting even drier with fewer plants and trees.

The Navajo family we are working with live off the land. They raise livestock such as sheep, goats, horses, and cattle. They sell the wool from their sheep and goats and the meat from their livestock. They also make and sell traditional Navajo jewelry, woven rugs, and baskets. The family lives in a modern home with electricity, but no running water. They haul water for cooking, washing, and drinking. They must haul water for their livestock too.

Another issue the family faces is moving sand dunes. Sand dunes form when the wind blows with enough energy to pick up and move sand from one area to deposit it in another. Sometimes strong winds carry and deposit large amounts of sand in short periods of time.
Teesto family home with nearby sand dunes. Photo courtesy of Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, Northern Arizona University.
Environment near Teesto. Photo courtesy of Joelle Clark.
The dunes near the family's home are growing closer and larger. They sometimes need to dig their vehicle out of the sand by hand after a storm. This can prevent them from going to town for groceries or to miss a hospital visit. The sand dunes on the road leading to the house must be cleared with a tractor for the school bus to come pick up their children. Since the family does not have running water, they use an outhouse or outdoor toilet. They often have to dig it out from under the growing sand dunes.

If they do not keep sand away from their home and outhouse, this Navajo family will have to rebuild in a different location. For this Navajo family, moving would create a financial hardship and cultural loss. Many Navajo traditions are tied to the home and surrounding area.

Sand sausage grid on Teesto sand dune. Photo courtesy of Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals, Northern Arizona University.
How can we help this family?

The Environmental Education Outreach Program (EEOP) at Northern Arizona University's Institute for Tribal Environmental Professionals has partnered with the U.S. Geological Survey on a pilot study to monitor dune migration and to stabilize dunes in the Teesto, Arizona area. To learn how you can help, click HERE.

Luckily for the Teesto family, scientists are interested in the growth of the sand dunes. These changes to the landscape provide information about short and long-term effects of climate change in the region. For example, Dr. Margaret Hiza Redsteer of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), as well as local students and volunteers, are working to help create solutions for sand dune movement. They study the rate of growth of the dunes, take aerial photos of the dunes, and monitor the wind and precipitation in the area.
Working with the scientists, the community has tried one idea to slow the growth of the sand dunes. Sand sausages are fabric tubes made from a corn-based material. The tubes are filled with sand from the dune and laid out in a grid-like pattern. Within each square of the grid, small seed cakes containing native seeds are planted. The idea for this system is to capture the wind blown sand, slow the growth of the dune, and help native plants grow after rainfalls. This technique of using sand sausages in grids was first used on sand dunes in Mongolia.

For more information, please contact:
Mansel Nelson