KULUNDA – How to prevent the next »Global Dust Bowl«? Ecological and economic strategies for sustainable land management in the Russian steppes: A potential solution to climate change.

The Kulunda Steppe in the Soviet Union was once highly valued for arable farming. With the collapse of the multinational state in the 1990s, large areas of the land fell into disuse. This situation has to be changed. A joint German-Russian research project seeks to ensure that land-use change develops as sustainably as possible.

The Kulunda Steppe in the Altai region of southwest Siberia was once regarded as one of the granaries from which the Soviet Union hoped to provide enough food for its population. In the so-called Virgin Lands Campaign of the 1950s and 60s, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had vast amount of steppe and grassland area converted into farmland, predominately for cereal cultivation. After the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s, large areas of this farmland were left fallow. 20 years after the transition, the region is still undergoing changes. »After the independence of the Ukraine and Kazakhstan«, says Professor of Geography Manfred Frühauf from Halle-Wittenberg University, »Russia has had to rely on its cereal producing regions to ensure the food supply. The Kulunda Steppe is therefore of a particular importance«. The government of the Altai region has therefore pledged to double cereal production in this agricultural area by 2025.
The effects of this land-use change are being investigated by the joint German-Russian research project KULUNDA in eleven sub-projects. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research provides a total of 3.2 million Euros funding for the project, up to year 2016. Geo-ecologist Frühauf is the project leader and speaker for the German-Russian research consortium of 16 universities, non-university research institutions and enterprises. The scientists’ fundamental objectives are to develop land-use strategies which stop or at least minimize soil degradation processes and which also stabilise and increase crop yields at the same time. In addition, the project aims to support sustainable land use, rural and regional development to better withstand climate change challenges.
To achieve this, the scientists are analysing soil and vegetation degradation in the Kulunda Steppe attempting to minimize the deficiencies of global models to assess the carbon balance and thus the greenhouse effect on these arable steppes. In addition, they attempt to analyse the economic and social effects of the land use.
The scientists are concentrating on finding the best ways of shaping agricultural land use for future viability and restoring the disturbed ecosystems to optimum functionality at the same time. Particular focus is on the region’s fertile black soil: this type of soil with its thick humic horizon once provided the basis for the flourishing cereal cultivation in the temperate grasslands of the Altai region. But the decades of arable land farming using the methods poorly suited to the local conditions led to the serious soil damage – so not only yields were declining but the soils were also becoming more vulnerable to degradation.

No new dust bowl

Because the State farms cultivated the land too intensively and too monotonously over a big area, surface water and winds eroded the soils. In many places their humus content decreased by up to 50 percent. This greatly diminished the soil’s capacity to store water, carbon dioxide and nutrients. The scientists have pledged to prevent the West Siberian plains from turning into a second »global dust bowl«, as it was seen in the US Midwest in the first half of the 20th century. The great plains were struck by devastating dust storms in the 1930s after the farmers turned a vast amount of the prairies to cereal cultivation, thereby exposing the soil to serious erosion.
Consequently hundreds of thousands of people were forced to abandon their homes and farmsteads and move away. »In the Kulunda Steppe«, says a geoecologist of Halle-Wittenberg University Dr. Gerd Schmidt, »we want to investigate the effects of land-use and climate change on the black and chestnut-brown soils prevalent in the region«.

Within the KULUNDA project several datasets about climate change and agriculture have been collected and will be created. An overview of the resulting datasets can be reviewed in the application below.

Further information

Detailled information are available on the project website:
The KULUNDA science portait and a short project description is available on the
Sustainable Land Management Website.
Detailled information about LUCCi datasets and web services are available in the
GLUES metadata catalog.