A third of the Navajo Nation is now covered with sand dunes — the result of climate change.
Roads, corrals, entire homes have been buried in sand, creating what President Barack Obama calls “climate change refugees.”
Thirty-foot-tall sand dunes the color of flower pots flank the road to the now-dry Tolani Lake on the Navajo Nation.
At one time, streams flooded the road. Today it’s sand. The community has frequently bulldoze the dunes, but they creep back as much as 40 feet a year.
"It’s a losing battle, unfortunately," said Margaret Hiza Redsteer, a research scientist for the U.S. Geological Survey. "They have to plow the road quite frequently to keep the road open so they can get in and out to their house."
Hiza Redsteer’s been studying Navajo sand dunes for 15 years.
"I’m really worried about Navajo people and concerned for their welfare," she said.
Hiza Redsteer said the current drought combined with increasing temperatures are making it harder and harder to live in these harsh conditions. On a recent clear spring morning, the sun was already blazing hot.
Hiza Redsteer said the Navajo are not simply victims of something happening hundreds of miles away. Many Navajos work at the largest coal-fired power plant in the West, on the reservation itself. The EPA said such power plants are responsible for almost 30 percent of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions, which contribute to climate change.
When you add up sand, heat, water scarcity and dust storms you can see from space, you start to hear terms like “uninhabitable.” That’s the word Carletta Chief used to describe parts of the Navajo Nation. She’s a member of the tribe and an assistant professor at the University of Arizona.
"People live in these homes and they have to either continually shovel the sand dunes back every time or I’ve seen in some cases, like in Kayenta, they’ve built barriers," Chief said.
For the Navajo, the land where you are born is sacred. And generations ago the federal government allotted each family a parcel, a permanent homeland.
"And even to move from one community to the next is nearly impossible because your ancestral land is where your family has lived for many, many years," Chief said.
Traditional Navajo people subsist off the land.
Researcher Margaret Hiza Redsteer said many overgraze their livestock and that’s left the land barren. Without plants to hold the land in place, the sand dunes become mobile. One invasive plant has made matters worse: tumbleweed. That romantic symbol of the American West is a scourge of the Navajo landscape.
Hiza Redsteer plucked a baby tumbleweed out of the sandy ground. She said the tumbleweed, or salsola, chokes out native plants that hold the sand dunes in place.
"It’s very effective at drawing moisture out of the ground, much more effective than the native plant species," she said. "So during a drought the salsola will get the upper hand simply because it’s more efficient at drawing moisture out of the soil."
Then when the wind blows, the tumbleweed detaches, tumbles and spreads its many seeds.