Desert Ecosystem Restoration

One crucial fact about deserts is that even though they seem like hostile environments for vegetation and animals, they are still vitally important for Earth’s ecosystem. If you’re not informed enough about desert ecosystems all of this talk might seem frivolous to you, so that’s why I’m writing this.

The plants and animals native to the desert have taken thousands, if not, millions of years to adapt to their home environment, thus becoming indelible from it – some plants remain dormant until rainfall and then grasses and flowers spring up before disappearing again, cacti soak up large amounts of water to last them for longer and their skin is thick so as to prevent loss of moisture, and some trees grow long roots deep into the ground to access moisture. Thus, deserts aren’t just large barren areas of dry land, but they are intelligent ecosystems that need preservation.

Deserts are under threat mostly because of climate change, but there is also the human factor like land development and mineral oil extraction, and once a desert’s ecosystem is destroyed, it’s going to take a while to fix it. It’s not an object, like a watch, that you can just get a repair kit ordered online and do it yourself. It takes awareness and work.

One of the things that can be done is planting. Growing plants in greenhouses before planting them in the wild is a great first step. But, this is a process that takes a while and needs careful planning. Plants are usually grown for a little over a year and then after they are transplanted, they must be protected from herbivores and watered regularly for a while, until they adapt. Sometimes, types of fungi are used as an aid to the plant to absorb nutrients and water.

Seeding is also another way to restore a damaged desert ecosystem, and is usually done by hand for smaller, and by plane for larger areas. Sometimes the seeds are coated or sown with a protective layer for protection from predation but also to conserve water. For successful seeding, the key is to do it when the outside conditions are suitable for the desired outcome.

Manipulating the soil is also a very successful way to aid deserts in their self-renewal. Soil health can be restored by additives, fertilizers, or organic matter, which can vastly improve the condition of the soil.

Restoring desert ecosystems is often challenging because success depends almost entirely on conditions outside of human control. But careful observation and navigation lead to success more often than not.

Harnessing Power From the Sun

Sun worshipers are ancient lore, and actually we still are today. We need to harness its power to meet the demand for inexpensive energy. Costs are skyrocketing for traditional utilities and people are finding solar to be the modern way to cope. Government credits make it viable for every budget. The long-term savings means that the panels pay for themselves. It is a win-win proposition for everyone on the planet who wants to practice sustainability as a good citizen of the earth.

There are so many different ways that installing certain types of solar can help people in desert areas — from solar water pumps to solar hot water heaters including tankless models from and solar irrigation systems. A lot of research has gone into helping such regions maximize their resources. The dry, hot climate demands a state-of-the-art solution that can only come from technological advances. While solar has been around a long time, it is growing with the times to meet the demand of a new capacity. Arid areas are an object lesson for the marvels of sun science. If you want a surefire lucrative job, get into the solar installation business.

As for me, I write this blog to spread the word. It grows naturally from my student focus on Environmental Science.  I am Alec, an undergrad student, who wants to talk about desert research for all nations. I’ll talk about everything from desert species native to Africa to how the continent’s abundant desert sunshine has the potential to shift political conflicts from the Middle East to Northern Africa. There is a lot to explore and it even extends to Latin America. As an environmental scientist I know that everything environmental eventually connects to everything else. I’ll try to avoid scientific jargon to make the reading easier for everyone. I hope to make this journey both fun and exciting along the way.

Thus, clean energy markets are emerging around the world, especially in the hot spots mentioned. After all, 35% of the earth’s surface is desert, and within this category area various types: hot, mild, and cold. This makes the solar expert’s job more complicated. Climate change is exacerbating the work, necessitating ongoing research and innovation.  It all depends on the degree of radiation. You can see that this is the industry of tomorrow. Burning fossil fuels is just not a permanent option. However, as you will see in coming blogs, there are issues with solar such as maintenance, sand storms, excessive water usage, and power transportation. It is a pretty interesting field.

Creating Sustainable Development in the Desert

Most people have not heard about the Great Green Wall being created on the continent of Africa. Its starting point is the southern edge of the Sahara Desert in the country of Niger. This location may seem odd if the goal is to create a “natural wonder” that will span the width of Africa. You build a bridge from two ends; you don’t start in the middle. But this is better described as a wall because it will be a project to fight against climate change that is occurring across the continent. It will spread out from Niger to the eastern and western shores of Africa.

Climate change has had significant negative impacts in this region, as not only have people left the region for European countries, but there have been annual droughts, which has led to the lack of food and the expected human conflicts due to the lack of natural resources. After starting the project more than a decade ago, progress has been made to restore the lost natural resources and water management has encouraged people to return to their homeland. Part of the change has come by planting acacia trees that prevent soil erosion because this species of tree holds most of its water in its roots, making it resistant to periods of drought.

One story on The Great Green Wall said that the people of the region decided to “fight back.” The question is how can man fight against the forces of nature? This appears to be exactly what the project is attempting, but the underlying reality is that it is working to cooperate with nature in spite of the global climate change. It can be thought of as an apology to nature from man.

Rather than trying to force the round peg in the square hole by denying the reality of climate change, species of plants are being brought into the region that are more suited for thriving in the changing environment. It’s not as though there are not trees that cannot thrive in desert environments, so it is simply a matter of finding what species can co-exist in the current climate.

This type of development is not only sustainable, but is likely to produce an even greater return on investment economically and environmentally. The aforementioned fight is going on from the human end by creating sustainability through people remaining in their area and working to find solutions to the problems which climate change has created. The topological categorization of the Sahei is not likely to change for another 100 years, but that is two generations of people who need to find ways to work with nature and stay put as an example to future generations.

I chose this example for sustainable development in the desert because The Great Green Wall has to contend with a wide variety of climates and economies to reach its desired goal of increasing employment and delivering people from poverty. Land that is abandoned to the whims of climate change is land that is lost for food production or advancing local economies. You might think of climate change as a way of nature adjusting to man, so man must cooperate and adjust their behavior to cooperate with nature.

Learning from African Nations

The previous 4 blogs have discussed the major issues of concern for primarily African nations, but Africa is probably the best place to begin looking at how we can address the problems of desertification and the impact of climate change throughout the world. It has some of the most diverse species of plants and animals on the planet, many of them in topographically defined desert regions. The presence of the world’s largest desert in the Sahara needs no explanation, and the abundant opportunities for the development of solar power plants likewise needs no explanation.

The news is often headlined by stories of peoples from various countries migrating to other countries to escape their political or economic woes. But one thing we can learn from these African nations and the people who inhabit them is that it is possible to fight to stay in your homeland if you are creative and resourceful enough. In general, Africa is considered to be a continent with significant untapped resources, but the most important resource in any country is its people.

The Great Green Wall project shows us that cooperation between individual countries is possible, and not solely for the purposes of irrigation. This project will cover an estimated 4500 miles when completed, the distance from San Diego, California to Boston, Massachusetts – and then some. It will cross governments of every type, and yet seeks to benefit every country it touches. Ten years later, progress, albeit small, has been made but these African nations are demonstrating to the world the value of cooperation in dealing with desert problems that key countries in the world are currently facing.

One question that is not being considered by most governments is how they will deal with climate change if it turns a part of their country into desert land within the next 50 years. Resources such as water that are often taken for granted will need to be managed to prevent civil unrest. Sources of food production once thought reliable will disappear. Such changes can undermine the very foundations of a democratic government.

African leaders from around the continent are currently dealing with these situations, and have gained a wealth of knowledge and experience in managing them. Due to the lack of funding and technological resources, they are finding solutions with only a minimum of technology, and are often discovering the best solution is the natural solution. This approach has proven both effective and socially sustainable.

There is some truth that technology can provide solutions to many of the world’s most difficult problems, including dealing with desertification. But as was stated earlier, a nation’s most valuable resource is its people, and eventually world leaders will come to recognize the vast amount of knowledge and experience leaders across Africa have available to offer the world.

Irrigation Ideas

Human development and technology have often been blamed for corrupting nature, but in the case of desert regions technology can be used to irrigate lands and grow a number of foods that will benefit the peoples living there both as a means of providing food and economically. Desert regions are able to grow foods rarely found elsewhere in the world, so a surplus can be exported to improve the overall lives of the population.

When discussing the idea of desert irrigation, many of the world’s first world classified countries are unaware of the existing irrigation systems that are currently in use. Some of these systems have been in use for thousands of years, with a significant amount of fine tuning taking place over the centuries. In other words, even without modern technology irrigation system have brought water from hundreds or even 1,000 miles away to provide water to local populations.

These systems often use gates to control the flow of water. A calendar is used to schedule the flow based on need. While water is essential for human survival, additional water is required during planting and growing seasons; less during harvest times. Because a water source can span across several countries in, say, Africa, agreements between nations are a standard part of international relations.

But within a country it is individual property owners who often control the find delivery to local regions. We are not talking about corporations or governments here, but people who have developed a mutually beneficial cooperation where the amount of water allowed is proportional to factors such as family size and the amount of land owned. While technology can provide solutions to irrigating desert lands, the best idea for the best way to distribute water usage is the unincorporated person.

Specific to desert regions, dams are the usual means of containing and storing water. But these have proven not to be particularly effective, in part due to the desert heat which results in a significant amount of water lost to evaporation. Add to that the amount of water that is absorbed into the ground and you have a very unstable water supply system.

In countries such as the United States which as an abundant supply of fresh water, the concept of irrigation is generally thought to providing water to a field. However, in desert regions a technology called drip irrigation supplies only the amount of water needed for a plant to survive. In other words, the idea of water simply being retained in the soil is done away with. This, in combination with genetically modifying food crops such as corn to be able to thrive in very dry conditions, is being researched to maximize water usage and create new forms of irrigation technology.

Renewable Energy Sources Provide Hope

Usually when people talk about the desert the issue is water. The question when bringing energy into the discussion is which is reusable and which is renewable. The difference is that one already exists (water) and one is produced (energy). There are no “new” water supplies on the Earth, but there are many ways energy can be produced.

The first thing that comes to mind when talking about renewable energy and the desert is obvious – the sun. Solar technology is being made available around the world for homes, businesses, and government facilities. One of the advantages of using solar power in the desert is the amount of sunlight available all year round, allowing a constant and reliable supply of electrical energy available to everyone.

People in first world countries often fail to realize that one of the biggest reasons countries are not able to economically advance is the lack of a consistent, reliable supply of electricity. I have a friend who lives in the country of Belize, a small country just south of Mexico. She told me that the United States is one of the few countries in the world where air-conditioned homes are found just about everywhere. A man I met who lived in Nigeria said the reason they don’t have air conditioning systems is because there is not enough available electrical power on the grid to run an air conditioning system 8 hours a day, let alone 24 hours.

An air conditioning system is one of the best examples of efficiently using technology to benefit people in desert regions. It is a closed system, meaning the fuel that cools the air remains in the system and very little is lost when used. New coolants can cool a room for 5 years or more without ever having to replace the coolant. When applied to desert regions, this allows people to work longer and result in a greater economic output for the country.

So renewable energy sources like solar energy have the potential to change what have historically been areas that have not been economically viable for generations into productive areas for manufacturing and service sector jobs. This has a domino effect on both the ecosystem and human population of desert areas.

The positive side of a significant increase in the use of solar energy to produce electricity is people will rise out of poverty and become more connected to the international community through the Internet. They will become more educated and more productive, creating a new hope for the future.

But there is also a negative side to this, as the effect on the existing ecosystem cannot be determined, or even guessed at. I mentioned in an earlier blog about the unknown effects desert organisms being introduced into new environments can potentially have on the world’s population, and the same argument is advanced here. Simply put, we don’t know, though this perspective can be modified to include the opportunity to conduct research into the problem in a real-world environment.

Electricity is at the heart of countries moving into the new technological world with smartphones and the Internet. Desert nations will easily be able to sell their surplus of solar produced electricity to other nations. Though this might be a pipe dream, it is possible that by the end of the century the desert sun will have the same economic and political weight as oil currently does. The bad news is no one controls the sun, but there is the potential for future wars being waged to seize the lands that have the most available sunlight to convert into electricity.

Global Warming and Desert Ecosystems

When people talk about global warming and the long term effects it will have on the earth’s population, the focus is generally on the places of highest population density. Coastal regions, such as the eastern coast of the United States, may find thousands of people displaced due to rising sea levels that will cover their existing homes under several feet of water.

However, the most largely ignored places on the planet are the desert regions because, well, almost nobody lives there. That is true when talking about people, but the desert is teeming with an abundance of life, everything from reptiles to insects, to birds. Yes, the hummingbird is often found in desert regions. I remember the first time I saw a hummingbird make a sharp turn around the corner of a building – backwards. Very cool.

But the biggest problem with global warming and its ecosystem is because so few people live there, any negative impacts on its ecosystem are either not studied or are largely ignored. As any scientist knows, the earth is one interconnected ecosystem, so what effects desert regions will eventually find its way to our civilized doorsteps.

Most of the individual components of the desert ecosystem are unknown to most people. Yet the most recent research shows that an increase in global temperature of only a few degrees can cause entire species to go extinct. While humans can adapt to temperature variations between 60 degrees and 90 degrees, anything outside of those parameters will drastically effect their survivability. Compare that with only a 2 or 3 degree variation for the dwarf succulents called Conophytum, less technically known as “cone plants.” There are as many as 5,000 species known, many of them in a desert region in South Africa.

Human perceptions about the desert is that a few degrees really won’t make much difference since all these living organisms have managed to adjust for hundreds or thousands of years. But it has been at least twice as long since the planet has experienced the level of global warming currently grabbing the attention of environmental scientists everywhere. What people often do not recognize is that the necessity of the field of environmental science hasn’t been recognized until the last 50 -100 years. Prior to that the focus was on biology, botany, zoology, and the like.

If these desert creatures find their environment is getting too hot for comfort, they will, as we have already seen from non-desert species, migration patterns to survivable environments. The problem that is being ignored is we don’t know what will happen when unknown desert species come in contact with their new environment. At the current rate of global warming, we will find out sooner than later.