I’m about to delve into some politics, economics, resource constraints, and context-building for the next series of the blog. Before I get into that, it’s important to keep the end in mind, and understand where i’m going.
A facility at the Khurais Oil Field. Source: The Guardian
We live in the oil age. I’m not sure what’s going to come after the oil age, but we’re not there yet. Everything human society runs on is derived from oil. Agriculture depends entirely on oil, and I don’t mean because bananas make it from Colombia to wherever you are. Food is produced with oil-derived nitrogen fertilizers, and mined phosphates and potash, using oil-driven machines. Without those fertilizers, conventional agriculture collapses. The planting, the fertilizers, the synthetic pesticides and herbicides, and the harvesting are all done using oil-driven machines, processes, or materials. That’s just the agriculture. There are other oil-driven fields that determine a lot about our way of life:
We depend on oil for almost everything in our lives. Put that thought on a shelf for a second and let’s talk about saudi Arabia.
Not only does Saudi Arabia depend on oil for everything that everyone else does, but it also depends on oil for its national revenues–about 90% of them. Since Saudi Arabia is a desert country, with no rivers or lakes, its capacity to be resource self-sustaining is very very small.
The way our societies are designed, and the way we produce, distribute, consume, and discard the products and goods of 21st century civilization is turning much of our world into water-stressed desert as well.
Look at the American Southwest: the Colorado River no longer reaches Mexico. There are otherwise intelligent people seriously advocating for a pipeline of water from Lake Superior, once the Ogalalla aquifer runs out. Finally Southern California is on the verge of building its first desalination plant, and you can never stop with just one. All so we can have ranches and cotton.
Look at the Aral Sea, once the world’s 4th largest lake. It will be gone within 15 years, at which point the surrounding countries, which have sucked it dry for cotton production and other agricultures will also start to desertify. Here’s what NASA has to say about it:
As the lake dried up, fisheries and the communities that depended on them collapsed. The increasingly salty water became polluted with fertilizer and pesticides. The blowing dust from the exposed lakebed, contaminated with agricultural chemicals, became a public health hazard. The salty dust blew off the lakebed and settled onto fields, degrading the soil. Croplands had to be flushed with larger and larger volumes of river water. The loss of the moderating influence of such a large body of water made winters colder and summers hotter and drier.
The Aral Sea Disappears over 30 years. Source: Columbia.edu
Look at the fertile crescent; it’s not fertile anymore. Northern Syria’s severe drought and agricultural destruction was one of the causes of the ongoing revolution, and Turkey’s damning of the Euphrates, so it can grow cotton, is decimating Iraqi farmers, and will eventually lead to the destruction of the Euphrates itself.
Look at Egypt, which was once the bread basket of the roman empire, and now the greatest importer of wheat in the world, with rapidly salinating soils, and a falling capacity for agricultural production.
China, Pakistan, India, Australia, Central Asia, and many other countries are experiencing massive desertification, and in most cases this is caused by short-sighted, unsustainable oil-based agriculture systems. This is well documented in Fred Pearce’s “When the Rivers Run Dry.”
China has twice more land undergoing desertification than it has land under agricultural production.
The whole of human civilization is in a pattern of overdrawing resources. We mine our soil to produce food, destroying soil in the process. We turn forests into fields, and then the fields turn into deserts, as the waters and lakes dry up. We are mining our oceans until they are full of plastic & jellyfish. We are consuming every non-renewable resource we have and after we are done with them, we discard them in unreusable forms, ruining the renewable resources we have in the process. Our ability to affect our environment increases more quickly than our ability to perceive that effect. This is not an issue of global warming–this is an issue of how humans manage their resources.
What seems to be the near future of Saudi Arabia, a barren land with drastically few renewable resources, and a dependence on mining oil, gas, potash, and other minerals, is very much like the future many countries face, unless the way they manage natural resources changes. The truth is, unless we redesign our societies to cooperate with nature and its cycles, and redesign how we produce, transport, consume, and discard all the facets of peopledom, that is the future we all share. Keep that in mind as you follow over the next few months the series on food security, water security, and the challenges Saudi Arabia faces over the next generation.
I’ve written this series on the awesomeness of trees and the functions they perform in direct contrast to the pieces I wrote on desertification. Whereas desertification is a self-replicating, self-reinforcing downward spiral of death, drought, and barrenness, afforestation is an upward spiral leading to greater life, water, and productivity. Both contain self-reinforcing feedback loops that lead to their expansion. Most importantly, whichever cycle is underway largely depends, in many cases, on how people are managing the land.
grazing can contribute to desertification or reforestation, depending on human management.
As I wrote in my introductory post, people are the keystone species of the planet, which means our actions have far reaching effects on the environment around us. In fact, our ability to change our environment increases at a greater rate than our ability to perceive that change. In short, depending on how we manage the earth, we can kickstart the process of desertification (and we have throughout history, mostly through our use of agriculture), or we can be the catalyst for afforestation. In this post, I will tie together all the previous posts on desertification, and the awesomeness of trees, and show how afforestation can be used to convert the Arabian Peninsula into a productive, resilient, and bio-diverse land. If you want more details, follow the links.
First off it should be noted the cycle of desertification had a jumpstart when a national policy unintentionally lead to a collapse of the traditional land management systems, the hima. Once that desertification is underway, it manifests cycles that inhibit rainfall, increase evaporation, and make it harder for life to become established. Those cycles involve an increase in temperature, the creation of dust, and the loss of nuclei for water droplets and clouds to form around. As rainfall and precipitation are inhibited, temperatures increase more, dust increases more, and only the hardiest of plants survive, leading to less and less nuclei. Soil turns into dust, the nutrient cycle ceases, and the water cycle becomes undependable and erratic, and total evaporation goes up. In this way, deserts expand.
A huge dust storms swings through the empty quarter from the Arab Gulf, heating the atmosphere past the dew point, so that no clouds may form. Source: earthobservatory.nasa.gov
In my last few posts, i’ve written specifically on how trees can counter each aspect of desertification. They decrease the amount of atmospheric dust, and block winds so less dust gets thrown up there. They also lower ground temperatures by providing shade and absorbing a tremendous amount of heat from the sun. Finally, in areas away from coasts, they provide the majority of nuclei and water vapor for clouds to form. They can care for their own hydrology allowing for soil life to recover and the nutrient cycle to start back up again. Finally, they increase precipitation, both through generating rainclouds and capturing dew. Thus, establishing trees can reverse the cycle of desertification, restore a healthy functioning of the water and mineral cycles, and bring life back to the desert. Of course, in all deserts the question then becomes, “How do we establish trees in a place with no soil and no water?”
The coastlines where humidity and clouds can form are the edge to start on.
This is where design and understanding nature’s cycles come in. The key to reversing desertification will depend on the larger macro weather cycles, as well as the geography of whatever desert you’re looking at. No matter what it is absolutely imperative that you start at the edge of the desert rather than in the middle. Starting in the middle would be foolish and pointless. All change happens on the margin.
In the Arabian Peninsula there are 3 margins to focus on–the Hijaz, the Omani Coast, and Yemen. The hijaz gets lots of humidity and water coming off the red sea, whereas Oman gets typhoons coming off the Indian Ocean. Finally the SW corner of Yemen hits the tail end of the green belt across Africa. These are the edges where you could start because this is where you still get some water (albeit not very dependably) that you could use for reforestation. As those forests encroach on the desert, you can start to beat it back.
Mountains provide an opportunity to reforest desert because of floods & runoff.
In the hijaz, that water shows up as flash floods, with some 90% of the fresh water running into the sea. That’s enough water to reforest the Hijaz. Reforesting the hijaz would be a catalyst to increase rainfall over the tihama plain, as well as the western edge of the empty quarter, which in turn would allow more growth to occur in those areas. Thus forests, just like deserts, contain within themselves self-perpetuating mechanisms that spur their expansion and provide their resilience. Whichever one occurs is a question of human management.
This wraps up the first major part of the blog series about greening the Arabian Peninsula. Up till now I have provided a general overview of the cycles, and the science behind what’s going on environmentally in this part of the world, as well as how we could convert the peninsula into productive landscape. The principles in this series are applicable in any desert, though some would be much more difficult to tackle than others. How people will manage the land under their stewardship will dramatically affect the coming generations’ ability to feed themselves, and to drink. My hope is that these posts will help open peoples’ eyes to the possibilities, and to how much positive change human society can bring to the environment through smart management, good design, and cooperating with nature.
There are some desert areas where dew consists of 100% of all the precipitation–particularly in the Atacama of South America as well as in some areas of the Namib desert (the above picture is from the Namib Desert, sourced here). That dew drop depends entirely on the local foliage–without those plants, the dew would not fall. This leads to some chicken and egg type questions–if the plants need the dew to live, and if the dew only happens because of those plants, how did they get there in the first place? Regardless, even in temperate climates dew can be a significant source of precipitation–up to 30% in some areas (my source on that is Geoff Lawton, in a personal conversation).
In deforested areas, the dew-catching and creating phenomena ceases, and the affect can be enormous. Through reforesting these areas, we can increase total precipitation through dew collection alone–not counting the increase in rainfall and cloud creation caused by the trees.
Dew collects on the leaves of an Albizia
Here is how that works:
The dew point is the temperature at which water in the air begins condenses on solid surfaces–particularly those that are not connected to the heat of the ground. Leaves, grass blades, metals, or even stones can play this role. If there is no surface for the water vapor to condense on (as in much of Al Baydha) then the water in the air will simply stay as vapor. This is how the Groasis Waterboxx works, how air-wells work, and how many dryland coastal-forests acquire much of their water. Trees especially, that can have acres of surface area along their leaves, can catch a surprising amount of dew, which then drips underneath the tree into their root zone. As the trees grow, their shade further reduces ground temperatures and dessication by way of the wind, which raises the dew point, reduces further evaporation, and makes the whole process more likely to happen.
Dew and other types of condensation should not be underestimated as a source of precipitation, especially in coastal deserts, like those along the coasts of the Arabian Peninsula, and could probably provide enough water for the early stages of their reforestation.
This was initially going to be my last post on widely unknown functions that trees can provide, but it got long so there are going to be more of these. Previously I wrote about their ability to increase cloud creation and precipitation, as well as some trees’ ability to manage their own hydrology by actively pumping water from wet areas to dry ones. Bear in mind that i’m not covering all the functions trees can provide–just those that i think are relatively unknown, and highly relevant to the work of afforesting deserts. This post is about how trees affect air quality in urban settings, and how that affect could be used to dramatic effect in an arid setting.
There have been various studies documenting the value trees create in urban environments by reducing dust and pollutants. This value is typically calculated by summing up the costs to society these pollutants and dust would create if the trees were not there to reduce their impact. These values accrue specifically in the fields of air quality & public health, energy, and flood and drain management, and are valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year in large metropoli.
Trees, Dust, and Pollution
Trees remove a host of pollutants including nitrogen dioxide, (NO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), ozone (O3), carbon monoxide (CO), and particulate matter of ten microns and less (PM10), including fine particulate matter (fpm) of less than 2.5 microns. Particularly with the fpm, a study in the UK found that urban trees reduced fine particulate matter by 50%.
Source of particles & their size, from Wikipedia.
This is not simply an issue of breathing easier. Regularly breathing fine particulate matter of 2.5 microns or less is proved to be a direct cause of ischemic heart disease, dysrhythmias, heart failure, and cardiac arrest, increasing the risk of these diseases by 8 to 18%. The other pollutants are known irritants that cause emphysema, bronchitis, asthma, cancer, or even death (like with carbon monoxide poisoning). High concentrations of the sulfur oxides are associated with increased visits to emergency rooms, and increases of death in at-risk populations such as the very young, very old, and those with already existing cardio-pulmonary diseases. Notice in the chart above the sources of fine particulate matter–these are very common in industrial desert cities.
David Nowak, Ph.D., of the USDA Forest Service calculated that the trees in New York City save the city approximately $60,100,000 per year in health costs alone. On small scales, strategically planted trees have been found to reduce pollution by 50% on urban and suburban lots.
What About Dust Storms?
Of course urban trees work primarily on pollution that is created within the city but what about small particulate matter and pollution, such as that carried by huge dust storms, brought from outside?
First, it should be noted that many dust storms that hit urban areas are the direct result of deforestation and agricultural dust bowls, such as some that have occurred in Australia, Iran, Pakistan, Northern China, and the American Southwest. What can trees do about these storms brought from outside?
Second, these storms are created by strong winds impacting bare soil, which cause fine dust particles to be swept up into the atmosphere. The winds are driven over and over toward the ground, thus picking up more and more dust, and unless they face major barriers will sweep into cities, causing the health risks I mentioned above as well as shutting down traffic and businesses.
This cycle could be eliminated by using waste water from cities to plant belts of forest on their windward sides, which would intercept the wind, add humidity to the air (which would weigh it down, slowing it further), and intercept huge amounts of dust. The density, size, and frequency of the belts would have to be designed commensurate with the severity of the dust storms that seasonally sweep in–in places like Riyadh (see the picture below), you would probably need multiple belts probably 300-400 meters wide. The design would have to intercept all dust at 100 meters or lower, and cause the rest of the dust to sweep higher up into the atmosphere.
It also bears mentioning that in cities where the dust storms are the direct result of deforested areas, particularly those areas where forest was replaced by monocropped agriculture, it would be better simply to manage those forests as a productive landscape than to eliminate them.
Imagine putting wasted waste water to use in cities such as Jeddah, Riyadh, Baghdad, Cairo, Phoenix, and others, by planting dense food forests to block out these storms! Imagine the improvement in the quality of life, if the skies in these cities were blue instead of hazy yellow from pollution and dust! Imagine children with asthma and grandparents with heart diseases feeling like it is okay to go outside! Aside from the ecological services, the forests could provide a host of other resources–jobs, food, timber, fuel, forage, medicines, ambers, incenses, gums, nuts, oils, tourism, hunting, and more, and it could all be done without negatively impacting the ground water situation. Imagine, because once we have imagined it, then we can start to do it.