Sands of time running out for rare Canada desert

2013-09-25 08:40
Desert. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Desert. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Multimedia   ·   User Galleries   ·   News in Pictures Send us your pictures  ·  Send us your stories

Winnipeg - As desertification creeps into parts of the world, a rare stretch of sand in Canada's vast western plains is oddly doing the reverse - slowly sprouting with vegetation.

Tufts of prairie grasses are emerging throughout Spirit Sands, a stretch of dunes steeped in local lore in a popular nature park in Manitoba province.

The sands cover only about 4km² and in some parts, entire mounds have been completely overgrown.

Today, this small patch is the only desert in Manitoba and one of only a handful in all of Canada.

Once vastly bigger, it fanned out an estimated 6 500km² - about a third the size of Gauteng - from the mouth of the Assiniboine River.


Located in Spruce Woods park west of the provincial capital Winnipeg, the dunes are the last vestige of an ancient river delta, exposed 12 000 years ago when a glacier melted northward and a massive prehistoric lake drained to the south.

"What we're seeing out there right now is part of natural succession... vegetation encroaching or moving into what used to be an open sand dunes area," said Jessica Elliott, head of conservation in the province.

A study in the late 1990s found that the desert had shrunk by as much as 10% - 20% over each of the previous four decades, as vegetation encroached.

Elliott points to several factors.

"The climate is different (warmer) now than it has been in the past, there is more precipitation, wind speeds are lower," she said, and "we don't have... large bison grazing in the area or large, intense wildfires moving through the area."

Technically, Spirit Sands is not a true desert as it receives twice as much precipitation as a typical desert.

But the dunes have religious significance for aboriginals not to mention unique and hardy creatures, including Manitoba's only species of lizard - the northern prairie skink - which lives where the sand meets the prairies and Spruce Woods forest.

As well, they are a key attraction for tourists, who also come for the camping, hiking trails, horseback riding and river kayaking. According to park officials, 2 300 vehicles have visited since January.

The province has considered a variety of measures to preserve the sand dunes, including using chemical herbicides, lighting a prairie wild fire, weeding by hand, or re-establishing a herd of bison in the park, which would also require building a fence hundreds of kilometres long to keep them from wandering away.

But officials now appear resigned to let nature take its course.

"Regardless how much vegetation is on or off the dunes, it's a beautiful place to be," said Elliott.

"There are so many different spots to go and look at, enjoy the nature as is. It's got many attractions, so [we're] not worried about that at all."
Read more on:    environment

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions.

Sniffing out No 2

2016-10-24 16:53 publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24


Book flights

Compare, Book, Fly

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.