SciSun: But it’s a Dry Heat   Leave a comment

A Desert is a place most people want to avoid. It can seem like an almost-never-ending and virtually-lifeless place of nothing but sand and rocks and very little water and lots of heat; and what few animals there are, are probably dangerous and anyone who’s foolish enough to go into the desert will wonder around until they go crazy. It’s so different from what most people are familiar with it can be imposing and scary. Of course we know desert ecosystems are filled with many different types of life, all uniquely developed to desert life-styles (just like your grandparents who moved to Palm Springs), and deserts are extremely important to the health of the entire planet. It’s only recently humans have decided there’s more to the desert than first thought; and today the desert is being explored, and possibly exploited, for its resources and uncommon environment as never before. Even projects designed to benefit mankind might not be best suited to these ’empty’ desert environments, and scientists are concerned good plans might turn bad….

In a 206 page report titled “Baseline and Projected Future Carbon Storage and Greenhouse-Gas Fluxes in Ecosystems of the Western United States” (the title alone took up a few of those 206 pages), scientists working with the US Geological Survey – the part of the US government responsible for studying environmental systems, climate, and natural resources – have determined that un-disturbed deserts hold, or sequester, a significant amount of carbon in the ground; keeping this carbon (one of the greenhouse gasses which many scientists and researchers believe is driving world-wide climate change) from entering the atmosphere and leading to more significant climate and weather changes like dry, hot summers and melting ice caps and storms that flood cities. All natural ecosystems hold carbon in some amount – after all, carbon is just biomass, the living and-no-longer-living plants and animals of each area. So at first thought, it seems an area of dense forest or jungle, with lots of plants and leaves and animals would hold more carbon than a desert; and on the surface – literally – these rich environments generally do hold higher levels of carbon. But today, in many deserts around the world, people are planning to install solar power equipment and wind towers and other renewable resource facilities which, during construction and operation, will dig into the desert soil and release carbon that’s been held for thousands of years. In the Mojave and Sonora and other deserts of the western US, the ‘perfect’ building foundation for construction is just a few feet down – a rock-hard material called caliche, densely-packed soil and carbon dating to the Pleistocene Era or earlier – that’s the time of Mammoths and Sabre-Tooth tigers and Giant Cave Bears. Scientists estimate every time the caliche is disturbed, not only does it remove desert landscape that could hold future carbon deposits, it actually frees prehistoric carbon back into the environment.

Plus, NASA researchers didn’t have to be rocket scientists to recently discover that dense clouds of airborne dust, like that recently seen in China due to disruption of natural desert landforms and ground cover, has a significant effect on air temperature, moisture and evaporation, and even the amount of radiation from the sun that reaches Earth and everyone who lives on the earth. This is the same type of atmospheric disruption that could be caused by construction projects in our California and Nevada and Arizona deserts.

Oh, and for the cities and human developments that aren’t just being planned, but are already built in desert locations? It’s been known that areas of dense construction, particularly concrete and asphalt, create heat islands, areas that experience significantly higher temperatures and extreme climate than non-disturbed areas just a few miles away; but now, it’s been found some changes man makes to the land leads to cool islands (no, that’s not a water park. But it’s a great name for one!). In a cool island – like a golf course or grassy field built where there wasn’t lush vegetation naturally (like a desert!), the immediate area has a more mild climate and temperature than the natural surroundings. Which sounds fine, until we realize the desert wasn’t made to be cool and mild, and the only way it can do it’s job is to be dry and hot and harsh.

This isn't a special effect, it's the same forest:  Healthy, on the left; two years later heat-and climate-stressed, on the right.

This isn’t a special effect, it’s the same Southwest landscape: Healthy, on the left; two years later heat-and climate-stressed, on the right.

So there’s another result of all these man-made environments: In ‘heat island’ cities which suffer from extreme summer temperatures, people use more air conditioning which releases water vapor into the air. Within ‘cool islands’, the larger, greener, and more dense vegetation itself leads to higher humidity. Both situations affect not only the immediate area but create water vapor which rises into the sky and could change entire desert ecosystems. So if we’re not careful and make good decisions, one day anyone living in the desert might have to deal with both oven-baking Heat – and soaking-high Humidity.


Michonne Says: When it’s too hot to be outside, I go underground in my burrow. When it’s too cold to be outside, I go underground in my burrow. I don’t know what ‘humdidity’ is, and most of this story I don’t understand at all. So I think I’ll go underground in my burrow.

Posted March 17, 2013 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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