This study uses statistical modeling techniques to develop a desertification risk index (RI) for Minqin County, Gansu Province, China. Twenty socio-economic factors were selected and compared with the RI results to explore the spatial and temporal variability of desertification risk in the study area and to identify possible local driving forces behind desertification risk. The explanatory factors were different in 1988, 1992 and 1997, possibly reflecting the role of temporal variation as a contributor to desertification. The average number of sheep per-household was found to be an important indicator of change in desertification risk, while changes in ridge crop planting area explained the distribution of the rate of change in desertification risk in 1988-1992. The results suggests that the RI was useful in expanding the understanding of spatial temporal desertification issues in Minqin County, as well as identifying a current set of agricultural activities related to desertification risk. Further, given the limited nature of consistent data and observations for the area, development of the RI also served to establish a baseline for future investigations into desertification change and the risks such change might pose for the region.