The Carcross Desert, one of the Yukon’s many oddities, is a popular place to play. Located near the town of Carcross, this sub-Arctic sand pit is often proclaimed as the world’s smallest desert. While that’s an unofficial title, at 0.4 square-kilometres, few contest that the desert is petite. But size won’t stop the Carcross Desert’s visitors. From a simple walk through the unique scenery to sliding down dunes on a cardboard sled, people partake in all sorts of sandy fun.
But is all that activity good for this ecosystem? Well, the answer is complicated. Not all is as it seems when it comes to the Carcross Desert.
Before we go any further, a band aid needs to be ripped off: the Carcross Desert isn’t a real desert. It’s a dune field. The difference comes down to technicalities—a desert receives less than 25 centimetres of annual precipitation, while the Carcross Desert receives… 28 annual centimetres. So, “the world’s smallest desert,” it is not.
In fact, it’s not even actually 0.4-square kilometres. The Desert (we’re going to keep calling it that, sorry) is part of a 2.5-kilometres long dune field that runs to the edge of the Bennett Lake beach, with the middle section mostly taken over by vegetation. This revegetation process is a common fate for dune fields, of which there are multiple in the territory.
A dune field is filled with unique plant life and invertebrates, but the Yukon’s surrounding forest is always creeping in. Many dune fields have been completely taken over, transforming from ever-shifting sands (an “active” dune field) to more static, forested ground (an “inactive” dune field). But some dune fields, like the Carcross Desert, are still holding on to their “active” status. That’s where the northern Desert’s unique advantage comes in handy. As one of the most accessible dune fields in the territory, the Carcross Desert actually benefits from human disturbance.
Yes, you read that right. Human activity is good for the Carcross Desert, as dune fields in the territory need such disturbances to help fight off encroaching boreal forest. Natural disturbances come in the form of strong winds or fires, but nowadays, human recreation is also a large contributor. A concrete example is when ski trails were put into the Carcross Desert, as that broke lichen crusts and reactivated the dunes, says Bruce Bennett, who acts as conservation data centre coordinator with the Yukon government.
Bennett warns that unless there’s enough activity—be it human or natural—to renew the dune fields, they’ll turn into boreal forest. A tragedy, as the Yukon boreal forest has a habit of smothering rare areas.
“There are certainly not a lot of rare things found in forests,” Bennett says. “So it’s kind of an interesting thing that people, you know, talk about protecting the boreal forest, but in Yukon, the boreal forest is a bit of a slow moving invader. And so, left unchecked, it slowly smothers some of our truly rare habitats.”
The dune fields are indeed rare locales. While dune fields were likely more connected at one point, they’ve since evolved to become increasingly isolated over the last 10,000 years. This led to each having a particular collection of species that thrive there; no two are exactly alike. That means, beyond hosting life unique to the rest of the territory, these dune fields are also unique to one another. But once an area loses a species, it’s difficult to get them back, and so as dune fields shrink they often become less complex.
But while too little human intervention is harmful, too much of a good thing can be just as dangerous.
Bennett says that, while the larger Carcross dune field is still ecologically intact, the section known as the Carcross Desert has almost been “loved to death,” meaning “all the plants that used to be there and all the insect communities and all those sort of things, you have got nothing but sand because it’s too active. There are too many vehicles, too much stomping. So it’s just that balance… It’s really good to wander around the [Carcross] Desert, but too much wandering can also create problems.”
It’s an issue that often comes up, for example, when off-road vehicles like ATVs are used irresponsibly in the area. A hike through the dune field is beneficial, a drive on motorized vehicles is less so.
The Carcross Desert requires a careful balance, but it’s one well-worth keeping—both out of respect for the life in the area and because this “desert” can put a smile on the face of just about anyone who passes through.
In addition to Bruce Bennett, thanks to Panya Lipovsky and Lewis Rifkind for their contributions to this story.