Rethinking the environment

Dr. Christopher Hugenholtz and his research team are discovering that wind erosion is essential to preserving a balanced ecosystem.

Thoughts of wind erosion bring to mind vivid imagery of the 1930s dust bowl – wind ripping away valuable topsoil as it blackens prairie skies and paints a picture of agricultural devastation.

Dr. Christopher Hugenholtz, a University of Lethbridge geography professor, is creating a new portrait of wind erosion by examining its positive role in sustaining the biodiversity of prairie grassland ecosystems.

"Wind erosion has been given a bad rap, and rightfully so because it removes and relocates valuable soil constituents for agriculture and degrades air quality with fine particulate matter," says Hugenholtz.

What he and his research team are discovering, however, is that wind erosion is also essential to preserving a balanced ecosystem. Sand dune areas serve as a habitat for a variety of sensitive and endangered plant and animal species that need bare, sandy surfaces and a level of wind erosion to survive.

Through the innovative use of satellite imaging, Hugenholtz has observed a dramatic decrease in the number of active sand dunes across the southern prairies of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

"We're seeing a step-by-step reduction in the number of species in a particular area, and we don't know what that's going to do in the long term to other species," says Hugenholtz.

Years of managing the dune areas by reducing stresses such as fire, the roaming of bison and the grazing of cattle have encouraged the growth of vegetation. Reduced wind erosion levels are a direct result.

"We need these disturbances to maintain biodiversity and keep the ecosystem functioning," says Hugenholtz.

His work aims to develop unique strategies for conserving habitat through a better understanding of wind erosion controls and processes.

"We want to provide land users with some adaptive strategies to manage the land with a goal of maintaining biodiversity," says Hugenholtz.