Dutch Deserts

With on average more than 180 days with rain annually (that’s roughly every other day!), and a total of more than 800mm of rainfall every year, one certainly would not expect to find a desert in The Netherlands. However, there are actually several areas in the country where you can walk through perfect white-sand landscapes. Interestingly, the cause of this goes back several ice ages.

During the Saale glaciation, roughly 300,000 to 130,000 years ago, at its maximum extent the edge of the ice sheet reached south to about midway through The Netherlands. This caused the local land to buckle, forming the Utrechtse Heuvelrug, a hilly ridge running through the current Dutch province of Utrecht.

During the most recent ice age, the Weichselian glaciation, roughly 115,000 to 11,700 years ago, the ice did not come south as far, but it did affect the local climate: the average annual temperature was less than -2°C. Obviously not much could grow during this period, and strong, predominantly westerly winds were able to move a lot of sand around. This sand mostly came from the, then dry, North Sea basin.

The yellow line shows the extent of the earlier Saale glaciation. The red line shows the extent of the later Weichselian glaciation. Source: Wikipedia.

Due to the hilly obstacles of the Utrechtse Heuvelrug, still remaining from the earlier Saale glaciation, much of this sand was deposited in this area. Starting around 10,000 years ago, the climate improved again, and soon the area, with its sand deposits, was covered with a thick forest.

During the middle ages, local farmers cut or burned down many of these trees, and let their sheep graze in these newly opened areas. This gave rise to heathlands and, due to the old sand layers now being exposed, large sand drifts. Some of these sand drifts are still present today, such as in the Soester Duinen (Dunes of Soest).

A view of part of the Soester Duinen.

Currently the Soester Duinen are actively being preserved. This means, among others, that every year some of the sand is moved back to where it originally came from, so it can drift once again. Also, some of the vegetation that would otherwise reappear spontaneously is being removed frequently, to maintain the area’s unique look, and to leave the sand exposed.

A lonely tree on top of a sand drift in the Soester Duinen.

In 1997 the Soester Duinen were declared a geological monument by the province of Utrecht. It is possible, and highly recommended, to go for a walk around and through the dunes. This provides a unique experience, giving one the feeling of walking through a true “Dutch desert”. Needles to say, though, you’ll have to make sure you go on one of those every-other-days that it doesn’t actually rain…