In the Utah Desert, Rising Temps May 'Bust the Crust'

Biocrusts are vital to desert life, but they can only take so much heat
By Mike L. Ford,  Newser Staff
Posted May 15, 2022 8:31 AM CDT
High Temperatures Threaten Desert's 'Skin'
The blackened soil in this image is actually biocrust, or "desert skin," which is the foundation of a vital yet fragile ecosystem.   (Getty/marekuliasz)

At first glance, most desert landscapes appear uniformly parched and bland. It’s easy to overlook cryptobiotic soil, or biocrust: the blackened “skin” that forms the vital top layer of desert soil. A closer look reveals a vibrant community of microbial cyanobacteria, algae, mosses, fungi, and lichens. And without this crust, "wind can turn desert soil into clouds of dust," making it devoid of life, per Utah's Canyonlands has long been an important hub of biocrust research; for decades, visitors have been warned not to “bust the crust.” It’s extremely fragile and takes years to recover from a single footprint. Per Wired magazine, a recent study suggests that human boots aren’t the only threat, as global warming “may partially negate decades of protection from disturbance, with biocrust communities reaching a vital tipping point.”

Ecologist Rebecca Finger-Higgens found a direct link between rising temperatures and the decline of certain lichen within the biocrust structure, which heralds a broader breakdown and potential loss of biodiversity. She and other scientists say her study “corroborates a lot of experimental work that is done globally.” Biocrust is a hot topic because drylands cover about 40% of Earth's surface. Its loss won’t just break biologists’ hearts; it could lead to devastating erosion and dust storms. It could also interfere with hydrological systems as more silt flows to waterways and hardened surfaces prevent the ground from absorbing rainwater. Scientists are experimenting with ways to foster and protect biocrusts, but as yet there are no scalable solutions. (More Canyonlands stories.)

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