The MENA region is made at 90% of arid lands with harsh climate. Arable lands have since time immemorial been receding before a desertification that is increasingly visual despite the commendable efforts to contain it and or even through operations such as Greening the world’s deserts. This gives a particular view on the engaged fight against desertification notably through turning desert lands into fertile productive agricultural lands. Such operations do apparently have ways unknown till now of affecting this ‘Living Skin of the Desert’ and the Environment.
Meanwhile, desertification is a worldwide phenomenon afflicting countries all over the world according to ecoMENA and the desert is making a comeback in the Middle East, with fertile lands turning into barren wastes. According to United Nation’s Development Program’s 2009 Arab Human Development Report, desertification is threatening around one-fifth of the MENA region.
The proposed WEF article written by Daniel Stolte, Science Writer, University of Arizona and published in April 2017 brings in yet another aspect of the desert morphology that is to definitely be taken into account. Although this has empirically been known to all indigenous populations, it lacked, like many other things any scientific substantiation. At the same time, rain making on demand through cloud seeding in the UAE’s Dubai, is held as an achievement that should be encouraged for a better and green future.
The ‘living skin of the desert’ helps protect the environment. Now it needs our protection
Arid and semiarid ecosystems are expected to experience significant changes in temperature and precipitation patterns, which may affect soil organisms. Image: REUTERS/Stringer
This article is published in collaboration with Futurity
Scientists have discovered that the desert’s biocrust plays a previously unknown role in regulating the arid climate.
This “living skin of the desert” goes by different names. You may have seen signs in parks and protected areas advising you not to step on “cryptobiotic soil,” or read about “biocrusts.” Each refers to the same thing: a community of mosses, lichens, and sometimes cyanobacteria in various proportions that is critical to human and ecosystem health and climate in the Southwest and other dryland areas.
Biocrusts have many benefits, not only to drylands but also to human health, explains study leader Austin Rutherford, a doctoral student in the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment.
“They stabilize the soil against erosion, and they reduce the occurrence and impact of dust storms, which are a human health issue, as airborne particles can affect people suffering from asthma and other respiratory problems,” he says. “And now that we are finding that we are losing some of these organisms that make up that soil surface to climate change, we have reason to believe that the loss may have drastic consequences for future climate.”
Arid and semiarid ecosystems are expected to experience significant changes in temperature and precipitation patterns, which may affect soil organisms in ways that cause surfaces to become lighter in color and thus reflect more sunlight, according to the new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports.
This change will bounce more energy back into the atmosphere, which, considering that drylands make up more than 40 percent of the Earth’s land surface, can alter global climate.
“The discovery that climate-change impacts on biocrusts could feedback to future climate is a critical factor that hasn’t been considered in the past,” says Rutherford, who did much of the data collection on this project while working for the US Geological Survey. “This information is an important step in understanding dryland climate, and may be helpful in developing future global climate models.”
Rutherford and his coworkers created outdoor testing plots located on the Colorado Plateau, where large squares of biocrusts were exposed to different warming and precipitation factors over time.
The researchers not only looked at how the biocrusts responded, but also measured the amount of energy that the different biocrust communities reflected back into the atmosphere relative to how much energy came in from the sun. This effect is known as albedo.
The study is the first to quantify the albedo on a small scale in the context of other characteristics such as biocrust cover, soil moisture, and the roughness of the soil cover.
“Unlike previous studies that examine large expansive areas using remote sensing data,” Rutherford explains, “we brought it down to the small scale and studied the finer processes that might be influencing the change in albedo.”
Warming and watering treatments had large impacts on biocrust communities, transforming them from the dark to light-colored communities, and causing energy that previously was absorbed by the dark surfaces to reflect back into the atmosphere. These factors led to large increases in albedo and may represent a previously unidentified effect on future climate by slowing how fast the Earth warms.
Watch your step
The replacement of biocrust mosses and lichens with light-colored cyanobacteria also may result in increased soil erosion, decreased soil fertility, and decreased removal of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from the air.
“You can make the claim that because in drylands we have more energy input from the sun and fewer cloudy days, even a slight change in albedo might have a much larger impact on the global energy balance than, say, a boreal forest or a temperate forest,” Rutherford says.
Many human activities can be unintentionally harmful to biological crusts. The biocrusts are no match for the compressional stress caused by footprints of livestock or people or the tracks from vehicles.
“Our study shows that effects of human activity may not only alter soil stability and fertility, but also the way energy is exchanged between the planet and its atmosphere,” Rutherford says.
Source: University of Arizona and the US Geological Survey
Original Study DOI: 10.1038/srep44188