Observing global desertification with the assistance of space technology

The effect of drought

Desertification is a type of degradation of land in which the land becomes more arid. Desertification is a direct result of global warming, and approximately 12 million hectares of productive land becomes barren due to desertification annually. Remote sensing technology can be used to measure the extent of desertification.

Land degradation is often considered the most monumental change faced by the environment within our lifetime, and global warming is worsening the effects. Desertification is an environmental challenge that extends far beyond those who inhabit the deserts around the world, imperilling the livelihoods and food security of over a quarter of the world’s population.

The combination of the effects cause by climate change, lack of sustainable freshwater, and the mismanagement of land has led to an increase in degradation in regions around the world with the highest levels of water scarcity. As a direct result, the soil in these regions is unable to support livestock, crops, and wildlife.

The causes for land degradation can be separated between causes related to land mismanagement and causes related to the climate. Causes related to land mismanagement often include variables such as overgrazing of livestock, inappropriate irrigation, deforestation, and over-use of land and crops. Causes related to the climate often include fluctuations in global temperatures as a result of greenhouse gas emissions.

Land degradation, desertification, and drought deprive people of water and food, forcing millions to leave their homes every year. 40% of the Earth’s surface consists of drylands, of which 20% is affected by land degradation.

Desertification can potentially be reversed through the application of an effective management strategy. Science-based methods are recommended by scientists to observe high-risk regions and to support water and land management decision-making. Satellite technology is widely recognised as essential to attaining this objective.

In order to effectively monitor land degradation, desertification, and droughts, a complex variation of indicators and parameters must be analysed continuously, many of which can be retrieved under the use of geo-spatial applications and Earth observation technologies.

Indicatorsand parameters that are beneficial to analyse include land cover and soil moisture. Soil moisture is essential to understanding levels of vegetation
stress and water scarcity, as well as the assessment of drought risk.

Earth observation technology generates a critical support system into the insight of mechanisms involved in the process of desertification. The sheer volume of information produced regarding both local and global data allows researchers and scientists to analyse the impact of land degradation and to quantify regression and stabilisation trends over extended periods of time. This data can even enable the prediction of these trends.

Information obtained through remote sensing satellites pertaining to land degradation is imperative to the facilitation of decision making in the short-term, and the formulation of strategies to guarantee sustainable development in the medium to long-term.


1. Carbon Brief (2019), Explainer: ‘Desertification’ and the role of climate change

2. The European Space Agency (2009), Satellite data instrumental in combating desertification

3. United Nations (2019), Desertification monitoring by remote sensing