The Nutrient Cycle in Hyper-arid Conditions:  Why This Camel Isn’t Biodegrading

The Nutrient Cycle in Hyper-arid Conditions: Why This Camel Isn’t Biodegrading

In a previous post I diagnosed the Hijaz with diarrhea as the closest analogy to the functioning of its water cycle.   This post is going to be about the nutrient cycle, which is closely related tot he water cycle’s functioning, but also deserves its own study and understanding.

The camel carcass in the picture above is 3 years old; it died in a car crash on a road near where I work. It looks pretty gnarly, but the amazing thing is that anything is there at all. In another climate, this would have been consumed by scavengers, insects, and eventually, bacteria, and turned back into soil. Not here.

In our climate south of Makkah, things do not biodegrade. They dry up, turn into dust, and blow away. All the minerals–the carbon, calcium, iron, magnesium, nitrogen, and others, never become available as nutrients for plant life, because they are still locked up in the carcass. Why doesn’t it biodegrade? Because the soil and the air are so dry that the bacteria that would carry out the decomposition cannot survive.

This is not only true for animals that die. It is also true for plants.

These pods won't biodegrade, and the seeds won't germinate without assistance.

These pods won’t biodegrade, and the seeds won’t germinate without assistance.

Thus if the nutrient cycle is not functioning due to a dysfunctional water cycle, how can we design around that? How can we get the cycle functioning again? First, we have to mimic a healthy water cycle, and second we need to introduce elements that can perform some of those roles for us. One such element is grazing animals. Grazing animals carry with them, at all times, a moist, bacteria-rich environment where plant and other organic materials can be broken down, and the minerals in that material can become available for new plant life: their stomachs.

Hundreds of meters of bacteria-rich camel digestive system can help mimic a functioning nutrient cycle.

Hundreds of meters of bacteria-rich camel digestive system can help mimic a functioning nutrient cycle.

Source for the picture can be found here.

Thus while grazing animals have been widely criticized for causing deforestation and desertification (and rightly so), we also need animals to reboot a functioning mineral cycle, without which nothing would biodegrade, and no new soil would develop.

Trees Are More Awesome Than You Thought:  Cloud Seeding

Trees Are More Awesome Than You Thought: Cloud Seeding

This is part 2 of a series on functions that not many people know trees can perform, and how those functions can be utilized in greening the desert.  Part 1 was on hydraulic redistribution, in which trees act like pumps moving water from wet to dry areas, from high in the soil profile to down in the water table, and vice versa.  Part 2 is on the chemical role that trees play in cloud formation and precipitation.

First, I have to acknowledge that much of the science in this post i have found thanks to Kevin Franck’s site where he posts relevant articles and resources .  The other main source for much of this is Bill Mollison’s Permaculture Designer’s Manual, which I have linked to in the resources part of the website.

Isoprene in a rain forest breaks down to 2-methyltetrol compounds.  Source:  Max Planck Institute for Chemistry

Isoprene in a rain forest breaks down to 2-methyltetrol compounds. Source: Max Planck Institute for Chemistry

Trees in large numbers (ie forests!) play a giant role in creating rainfall.  You probably already know that trees take in carbon from the air and release oxygen into the atmosphere.  This is called evapotranspiration.   But oxygen is not the only thing trees are exhaling– they also release volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) such as isoprenes, terpenes, and monoprenes.  In 2004 it was discovered that these compounds  break down into hygroscopic aerosols.  From Rice University’s Office of Earth Science, we learn why that is such an important discovery vis-a-vis the relationship between trees and rainfall.



A greater density of aerosols in clouds leads to greater density of small water drops. In turn, this reflects more of the sun’s heat, leading to longer-lasting clouds and cooler temperatures.

Aerosols are very important in the formation of clouds. Often aerosols act as Cloud Condensation Nuclei (CCN’s), around which cloud droplets are formed. Without aerosols in the air, there would be far fewer clouds. Aerosols can also affect the properties of existing clouds. Recent studies have found that in the presence of high amounts of aerosols, clouds will have more droplets than normal, with droplets tending to be smaller than usual. Because the droplets are smaller and more numerous, the clouds last longer and are reflect sunlight better than before. This effect could have significant implications on the climate. As the clouds reflect more sunlight, less of the sun’s energy reaches the surface of the earth, which then cools. This means that by putting more aerosols in the atmosphere, humans have the potential to alter the world’s climate and cause global cooling.”

In other words, forests emit compounds that provide significant amounts of cloud condensing nuclei.  In a study from Berkeley (links to pdf), they found that the 36% of all aerosols in the atmosphere came from tree-emitted terpenes and isoprenes.

These are just the microscopic particles emitted by trees.  Trees also give off larger particles from debris that also make up a large amount of ice nuclei, as I mentioned in the post about Kenya’s tea region and hail storms.  Remember  the 3 main conditions driving the cycle of desertification and  preventing more rain from falling in the Arabian Peninsula?  One of them was the lack of particles that make up cloud-condensing and ice nuclei in the atmosphere.

It seems that almost everything that trees push up into the atmosphere plays a major role in modifying precipitation–and most of it in the area of increasing cloud formation and rainfall.  And that brings us to the real punch in the gut:

According to Bill Mollison, Forests are the sources of up to 60% of all clouds and 40% of all rainfall–and from above we know that part of that is due to the VOC’s and dander emitted by forests and breaking down into aerosols that become nuclei for clouds, water drops, and ice.

This should make one thing very clear:  To green the Arabian Peninsula, we need to plant forests.  If only for their role in creating clouds and increasing precipitation, planting forests would be reason enough.  However in the next post we will see how afforestation won’t just increase cloud cover and rain–it will ameliorate every major element that is currently preventing greater precipitation.