Rare Canadian desert shrinking as vegetation takes over

WINNIPEG, September 27, 2013 (AFP) – 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 four square kilometres (1.54 square miles) 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 6,500 square kilometers (2,500 square miles) — about one-fifth the size of Belgium — 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 i