On the Navajo Nation, southwestern United States, warming temperatures and recent drought have increased eolian (windblown) sediment mobility such that large, migrating sand dunes affect grazing lands, housing, and road access. We present an assessment of seasonal variations in sand transport, mobility, and ground cover (vegetation and substrate) within a 0.2-km2 study area near Teesto Wash, southern Navajo Nation, as part of a multiyear study measuring the effects of drought on landscape stability. Sand mobility in the study area decreased substantially as one year (2010) with near-normal monsoon rainfall somewhat abated a decade-long drought, temporarily doubling vegetation cover. The invasive annual plant Russian thistle (Salsola sp.), in particular, thrived after the monsoon rains of 2010. Vegetation that grew during that year with adequate rain died off rapidly during drier conditions in 2011 and 2012, and the proportion of bare, open sand area increased steadily after summer 2010. We infer that isolated seasonal increases in rainfall will not improve landscape stability in the long term because sustained increase in perennial plants, which are more effective than annual plants at stabilizing sand against wind erosion, requires multiple consecutive seasons of adequate rain. On the basis of climate projections, a warmer, drier climate and potentially enhanced sediment supply from ephemeral washes may further increase eolian sediment transport and dune activity, worsening the present challenges to people living in this region. Connections between climate, vegetation cover, and eolian sediment erodibility in this region also are highly relevant for studies in other regions worldwide with similar environmental characteristics.
Additional publication details
USGS Numbered Series
Vegetation, substrate, and eolian sediment transport at Teesto Wash, Navajo Nation, 2009-2012
Scientific Investigations Report
U.S. Geological Survey
Geology, Minerals, Energy and Geophysics Science Center