Deserts ‘breathe’ water vapor, study shows

Deserts ‘breathe’ water vapor, study shows

Cornell University in a research supported by Qatar Foundation concluded a study that holds that deserts ‘breathe’ water vapor. So what? Did we know that in the MENA region that is at more 90% desert?

Deserts ‘breathe’ water vapor, study shows

By David Nutt 

Deserts may seem lifeless and inert, but they are very much alive. Sand dunes, in particular, grow and move – and according to a decades-long research project, they also breathe humid air.

The findings show for the first time how water vapor penetrates powders and grains, and could have wide-ranging applications far beyond the desert – in pharmaceutical research, agriculture and food processing, as well as planetary exploration.

The team’s paper, “Water Vapor Transport Across an Arid Sand Surface – Non-Linear Thermal Coupling, Wind-Driven Pore Advection, Subsurface Waves, and Exchange with the Atmospheric Boundary Layer,” published March 21 in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Earth Surface.

Deserts ‘breathe’ water vapor, study shows

Michel Louge
Michel Louge, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, pictured here in Qatar in 2012, has been using capacitance probes to study the moisture content in sand dunes since the early 2000s.

The project, led by lead author Michel Louge, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the College of Engineering, has spanned not only a great deal of time but also a variety of terrain. It began nearly 40 years ago when Louge was studying the behavior of fluids, gasses and solid particles.

Wanting to measure matter with greater sensitivity, he and his students developed a new form of instrumentation called capacitance probes, which use multiple sensors to record everything from solid concentration to velocity to water content, all with unprecedented spatial resolution.

When a colleague at the University of Utah suggested the technology might be helpful in imaging the layers of mountain snowpacks and assessing the likelihood of avalanches, Louge went to his garage, grabbed some probes and tested them out in a snowstorm. Soon he struck up a partnership with a company, Capacitec Inc, to combine their respective skills in geometry and electronics. The resulting probes also proved useful in hydrology research.

In the early 2000s, Louge began collaborating with Ahmed Ould el-Moctar from University of Nantes, France, to use the probes to study the moisture content in sand dunes to better understand the process by which agricultural lands turn to desert – an interest that has only become more urgent with the rise of global climate change.

“The future of the Earth, if we continue this way, is a desert,” Louge said.

Whereas other probes can measure large volumes of matter, Louge’s probes go deep and small, collecting data on a millimetric scale to pinpoint the exact amount of moisture in – and the density of – sand. To function in a new environment, though, the probes needed to be modified. And so began a decadelong process of trial and error, as Louge made periodic trips to deserts in Qatar and Mauritania experimenting with different versions of the probe.

The probe eventually revealed just how porous sand is, with a tiny amount of air seeping through it. Previous research had hinted this type of seepage existed in sand dunes, but no one had been able to prove it until now.

“The wind flows over the dune and as a result creates imbalances in the local pressure, which literally forces air to go into the sand and out of the sand. So the sand is breathing, like an organism breathes,” Louge said.

That “breathing” is what allows microbes to persist deep inside hyper-arid sand dunes, despite the high temperature. For much of the last decade, Louge has been collaborating with Anthony Hay, associate professor of microbiology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, to study how microbes can help stabilize the dunes and prevent them from encroaching into roads and infrastructure.

Louge and his team also determined that desert surfaces exchange less moisture with the atmosphere than expected, and that water evaporation from individual sand grains behaves like a slow chemical reaction.

The bulk of their data was gathered in 2011, but it still took Louge and his collaborators another decade to make sense of some of the findings, such as identifying disturbances at the surface level that force evanescent, or nonlinear, waves of humidity to propagate downward through the dunes very quickly.

“We could have published the data 10 years ago to report the accuracy of our approach,” Louge said. “But it wasn’t satisfying until we understood what was going on. Nobody really had done anything like this before. This is the first time that such low levels of humidity could be measured.”

The researchers anticipate their probe will have a number of applications – from studying the way soils imbibe or drain water in agriculture, to calibrating satellite observations over deserts, to exploring extraterrestrial environments that may hold trace amounts of water. That wouldn’t be the first time Louge’s research made its way into space.

But perhaps the most immediate application is the detection of moisture contamination in pharmaceuticals. Since 2018, Louge has been collaborating with Merck to use the probes in continuous manufacturing, which is viewed as a faster, more efficient and less expensive system than batch manufacturing.

“If you want to do continuous manufacturing, you have to have probes that will allow you, as a function of time, and everywhere that’s important, to check that you have the right behavior of your process,” Louge said.

Co-authors include Ould el-Moctar; Jin Xu, Ph.D. ’14; and Alexandre Valance and Patrick Chasle with the University of Rennes, France.

The research was supported by the Qatar Foundation.

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Groundwater: Nourishing Life

Groundwater: Nourishing Life

Groundwater Nourishing Life by Dr Irfan Peerzada and published by Greater Kashmir applies to all areas of the planet, particularly to those regions that are at the forefront of the sweeping global warming.

It should be noted that this threat has been taking on an alarming dimension for several years. Risks and vulnerability analyses of the Climate Change effects on the MENA region were carried out on behalf of certain authorities in charge of the environment. Most came up with findings on the fragile sectors of agriculture and water resources and established maps from local and international data such as the “drought severity” map based on the World Resources Institute.

These analyses of risks and vulnerability to climate change developed by these experts for several years also indicated that climate change will cause the MENA region generally a rise in temperatures, a decrease in total rainfall but also a greater instability of the distribution of precipitation during the year. It will lead to a degradation of the vegetation cover and soils resulting in greater erosion and acceleration of desertification.


In the above-featured image “Groundwater is also critically important to the healthy functioning of ecosystems, such as wetlands and rivers. “Flickr [Creative Commons]

Reliance on groundwater for food production continues to increase globally

Groundwater is invisible, but its impact is visible everywhere. Out of sight, under our feet, groundwater is a hidden treasure that supports our lives.

Almost all the liquid fresh water in the world is groundwater. Life would not be possible without groundwater. Most arid areas of the world depend entirely on this resource.

Groundwater supplies a large proportion of the water we use for food production and industrial processes. Groundwater is also critically important to the healthy functioning of ecosystems, such as wetlands and rivers. 

Groundwater: The invisible ingredient in food

Population growth, rapid urbanisation, and economic development are just some of the factors driving increased demand for water, energy and food. Agriculture is the largest consumer of the world’s freshwater resources. Feeding a global population expected to reach 9 billion people by 2050 will require a 50 per cent increase in food production.

Today, approximately 70% of global groundwater withdrawals are used in the agricultural sector, for the production of food, livestock and industrial crops. Reliance on groundwater for food production continues to increase globally, resulting in more use for irrigated agriculture, livestock and related industrial processes.

Indeed, about 30 per cent of all the water used for irrigation is groundwater, with regions heavily reliant on groundwater for irrigation such as North America and South Asia.

Groundwater has already lifted millions of people out of poverty and significantly improved food security, especially in India and East Asia, since technologies for drilling and energy sources for pumping were made widely available for rural farmers in the latter half of the 20th century.

Groundwater: a finite resource

Groundwater is being over-used in many areas of the world, where more water is abstracted from aquifers than is naturally recharged by rain and snow.

Continuous groundwater over-use can lead to depletion of this resource, compromising significant groundwater-dependent ecosystems and threatening to undermine basic water supply, agricultural production, climate resilience and food security.

Avoiding the problems of groundwater depletion requires increased management and governance capacity at multiple integrated levels and in inter-sectoral approaches. Reducing food waste can also play an important role in lowering water consumption.

Groundwater pollution

Groundwater is polluted in many areas and remediation is often a long and difficult process. This increases the costs of processing groundwater, and sometimes even prevents its use.

The use of chemical and organic fertilizers in agriculture is a serious threat to groundwater quality. For example, nitrate is the most common contaminant of groundwater resources worldwide. Other diffuse contaminants of concern to groundwater from irrigated agriculture include pesticides and antimicrobial-resistant bacteria.

Laws and regulations need to be enforced at all levels to prevent or limit diffuse groundwater pollution from agriculture, to preserve ecosystems and human health.

What can we do about groundwater?

Groundwater has always been critically important but not fully recognized. We must protect groundwater from pollution and use it sustainably, balancing the needs of people and the planet. Groundwaters’ vital role in agriculture, industry, ecosystems and climate change adaptation must be reflected in sustainable development policymaking.

Monitoring groundwater

In some areas of the world, we do not even know how much groundwater lies beneath our feet, which means we could be failing to harness a potentially vital water resource.

Sustainable groundwater use requires continuous monitoring of water consumption, particularly in irrigation systems serviced from non-renewable aquifers.

Satellite technologies offer cost-effective opportunities for estimating groundwater consumption and abstraction levels by measuring actual evapotranspiration in near-real time, over large areas.

Dr Irfan Peerzada, Department of Agriculture, District Bandipora

The Nile Delta’s Disappearing Farmland

The Nile Delta’s Disappearing Farmland

The Nile Delta’s Disappearing Farmland is a story by Adam Voiland based on NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The above image is for illustration and is of The Nile, Egypt.

During the time of the pharaohs, the fertile soils along the Nile River likely supported a civilization of roughly 3 million people. Now there are 30 times that number of people living in Egypt, with 95 percent of them clustered in towns and cities in the Nile’s floodplain. Much of the growth has come in recent decades, with the Egyptian population soaring from 45 million in the 1980s to more than 100 million now.

July 25, 1984, JPEG
August 16, 2021, JPEG

View Image Comparison

Just 4 percent of Egypt’s land is suitable for agriculture, and that number is shrinking quickly due to a wave of urban and suburban development accompanying the population growth. “It’s not an exaggeration to say that this is a crisis,” said Nasem Badreldin, a digital agronomist at the University of Manitoba. “Satellite data shows us that Egypt is losing about 2 percent of its arable land per decade due to urbanization, and the process is accelerating. If this continues, Egypt will face serious food security problems.”

The pair of Landsat images below shows how much farmland has been lost to development around the city of Alexandria between the 1980s and 2021. Cultivated areas appear green; towns and cities are gray. According to one analysis of Landsat observations, the amount of land near Alexandria devoted to agriculture dropped by 11 percent between 1987 and 2019, while urban areas increased by 11 percent. The images above show urbanization eating into farmland around the cities of Tanta and El Mahalla El Kubra and between the Rosetta and Damietta branches of the Nile.

July 25, 1984 – August 16, 2021

While the conversion of farmland to human settlements here has occurred for decades, multiple researchers observed sharp increases in the practice after the “Arab Spring” roiled the political and economic climate in Egypt starting in 2011. In recent years, Egyptian authorities have vowed to put an end to unlicensed building on farmland, though it remains a difficult practice to stamp out.

Urbanization is not the only process putting pressure on Egypt’s farmland. Sea level rise of 1.6 millimeters per year has contributed to problems with saltwater intrusion and the salinization of farmland in Egypt, particularly in the fringes of the delta southwest of Alexandria. About 15 percent of Egypt’s most fertile farmland has already been damaged by sea level rise and saltwater intrusion, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. While global warming is responsible for about half of the sea level rise affecting the Nile Delta, the sinking of the land (subsidence) is responsible for the other half. Natural compaction, as well as the extraction of groundwater and oil, contribute to subsidence.

One response to the loss of farmland has included efforts to reclaim and green-up parts of the desert. For instance, Farouk El-Baz, Boston University scientist and a member of the Apollo 11 field crew, has long promoted a plan to build an extensive corridor of highways, railways, water pipelines, and power lines to spur development and the establishment of new farmland in deserts west of the delta.

July 25, 1984 – August 16, 2021

While that project has not come to full fruition yet, large swaths of desert have been converted to farmland in recent decades. The pair of images below shows new farmland and the emergence of several new towns along the Cairo Highway. A mixture of center-pivot irrigation and drip irrigation—fed by groundwater pumps—makes farming in this area possible, explained Badreldin. While small-scale sustenance farming is common in the main part of the delta, most of the growers on the desert edge raise grains, fruits, and vegetables for export abroad.

“It is certainly possible to establish new farmland from the desert by tapping groundwater resources, but it’s a difficult, resource-intensive, and expensive process,” said Badreldin. “The poor soils and the intensive resources needed to farm in the western desert are a poor replacement for the richer, more fertile soils in the delta.”

Boston University researchers Curtis Woodcock and Kelsee Bratley have analyzed decades of Landsat observations as part of a Boston University effort to track how the availability of farmland in the delta is changing over time. “We certainly see expansion into the desert, but there’s nuance to this story,” said Woodcock. “After being farmed for a time, we also see a significant amount of that new farmland being decommissioned and reverting to desert.”

NASA Earth Observatory images by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Adam Voiland.

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Africa’s “Green Wall” also makes economic sense


Africa’s “Green Wall” also makes economic sense

It is about Africa’s “Green Wall” that not only makes economic sense but is also an important contribution to combating climate change.

However, a study by the University of Bonn shows that this does not apply to all regions in the Sahel.

Fifteen years ago, the African Union decided on an ambitious program: degraded ecosystems in parts of the Sahel are to be successively restored in order to secure food for the people living there and to protect the soil against further degradation. At the same time, the African Great Green Wall is an important contribution to combating climate change. A study by the University of Bonn and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) now shows that it also makes economic sense – although not everywhere in the Sahel. The analysis also shows how much violent conflicts threaten the success of the program. It has now been published in the journal Nature Sustainability.

The Sahel extends south of the Sahara from Senegal in the west to Ethiopia in the east of Africa. Vast areas of the formerly fertile region are now virtually uncultivated. Reasons are droughts, poor agricultural cultivation methods as well as overuse due to the growing demand for food and firewood.

The “Great Green Wall” initiative aims to compensate for and reverse this loss through mass planting of native trees and grasses. 100 million hectares of land are to be restored in this way. So far, however, this ambitious goal is very far from being achieved – partly because of a lack of financial resources.

However, this could change in the future: Earlier this year, various donor countries pledged nearly $15 billion to the project at the One Planet Summit for Biodiversity. “In order to use these funds efficiently, we now have to ask ourselves where and for which measures they should be used most sensibly,” emphasizes Dr. Alisher Mirzabaev of the Center for Development Research (ZEF) at the University of Bonn.

Every dollar invested yields a 20-cent of net returns

The agricultural economist has led a study that provides an answer. The researchers divided the Sahel region into 40 million plots of 25 hectares each. For each of these, they then analyzed which land restoration measures would be possible and how much they would cost. They compared this calculation with the economic benefits that could be achieved.

“On the one hand, these include the so-called provisioning services,” explains Mirzabaev: “These are the things that are produced by the ecosystems: Food and drinking water, raw materials such as wood or medicinal plants.” There are also other effects, such as a better climate, less wind erosion or pollinators services, which in turn increase the farmers’ crop yields. They, too, can have a price tag attached to them today.

The results show that building the “Green Wall” is also economically worthwhile. But how much depends on a number of factors. As a rule, reforestation would be the most advantageous economically and ecologically. But it takes decades for a few hundred seedlings to grow into a forest. The investment therefore only bears fruit in the very long term.

The situation is different when degraded areas are converted into farmland. “Ideally, the first harvest is then possible after just one year,” says Mirzabaev. Cropland restoration can thus pay for itself comparatively quickly, with many poor smallholder farmers also preferring quick returns from their restoration activities. However, the profits that can be achieved as a result are significantly lower, as are the environmental effects.

“In our analysis, we work with different scenarios, some of which are aimed more at short-term benefits, while others are more long-term,” explains the agricultural economist, who is a member of the Transdisciplinary Research Area “Sustainable Futures” at the University of Bonn. The so-called baseline scenario, for example, includes a mixture of both short-term and long-term returns. In it, every dollar spent yields an average net return of 20 cents.

Half of the profitable regions are too uncertain for action

However, there are huge regional variations in this. The most positive economic balance is for parts of Nigeria, Eritrea and Ethiopia. This is where the investment in the “Green Wall” is most worthwhile. To finance all the proposed measures in this scenario, a sum of 44 billion U.S. dollars would be needed. This would allow 28 million hectares of land to be restored.

However, the analysis also shows that this will probably only work in theory. The reason is that, due to violent conflicts, many of the regions where it would make sense to build the Green Wall are simply too unsafe for such measures. “If we take out these areas, we are left with just 14 million hectares,” Mirzabaev points out. “This shows how much such disputes not only cause direct human suffering, but also prevent positive development of the affected regions.”

Funding:
The study was funded by the European Union.

Publication: A. Mirzabaev, M. Sacande, F. Motlagh, A. Shyrokaya und A. Martucci: Economic efficiency and targeting of the African Great Green Wall; Nature Sustainability; DOI: 10.1038/s41893-021-00801-8
https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-021-00801-8 Preparation for restoration – of the “Green Wall” in Burkina Faso© FAO, http://www.fao.org/in-action/action-against-desertification/en

A Sahel village – near Timbuktu on the edge of the “Green Wall”© FAO,
http://www.fao.org/in-action/action-against-desertification/en

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Bedouins Without Borders Helps the Bedouins

Bedouins Without Borders Helps the Bedouins

BORGEN Magazine World News elaborates on how Bedouins Without Borders Helps the Bedouins.

The picture above is for illustration and is of BEDOINS WITOUT BORDERS.

Bedouins Without Borders Helps the Bedouins
Photo: Flickr

Bedouins Without Borders Helps the Bedouins

SAN FRANCISCO, California — Historically, the indigenous, tribal peoples of the Middle East, called the Bedouins or the Bedawi, have often been excluded or overlooked compared to the settled populations within the Levant region. Although a majority of the Bedouin community reside in the Negev desert, which is located in southern Israel by the border of Egypt, Bedouin individuals also live across the Levant, sometimes traveling into Palestine, Syria, Egypt and Iraq, among other countries. Bedouins come from a diverse range of ancestors, with a portion of the Bedouin community in Palestine originating from Sudan and other African nations.

The Modern Plight of the Desert Dwellers

Unfortunately, poverty and food insecurity are prevalent in Bedouin communities. The families within these groups are largely unable to access government programs and resources to aid them financially due to their nomadic lifestyles. Although research materials on the Bedouin community are difficult to find, some studies have been executed to investigate the population’s economic situation. As part of a study performed in 2008, Suleiman Abu-Bader and Daniel Gottlieb found that less than 9% of Bedouin females were part of the workforce in 2004 and more than three-quarters of the population experienced poverty in unregistered villages.

The nonprofit organization Bedouins Without Borders, created in 2015, aims to create awareness of the Bedouin community and advocate for the rights of Bedouins. As with other indigenous populations, the Bedouin people’s records are difficult to find, and thus, it is more difficult for them to access the resources they need. Therefore, part of the Bedouins Without Borders’ mission is to survey the Bedouin population and analyze the challenges they face in daily life.

Creating Bedouin Records

To aid in better serving the community and keeping track of the resources that families need, Bedouins Without Borders has established the Bedouin Data Bank for collecting basic information and the Bedouin Map to maintain a better understanding of the Bedouin movement over time. In working with mobile communities such as the Bedouin community that are always passing from place to place, it is necessary to log the activity of each tribal group and assess how their current circumstances shape factors such as food security.

The Bedouin youth themselves run these documentation programs, receiving training under the ALFURSAN initiative that Bedouins Without Borders developed to empower and motivate young people in the community. Organizational efforts such as these are crucial in providing the future skills that the Bedouin youth may need for their careers and bridging the cultural gap between the Bedouin community and other communities, making it beneficial on two fronts.

How Bedouins Without Borders Helps

One example of a program that Bedouins Without Borders offers to encourage development is Guardians of the Desert. Like the ALFURSAN program, Guardians of the Desert centers on self-empowerment and community strengthening efforts simultaneously through the youth’s direct engagement. Each of these programs offers valuable leadership positions to Bedouin teenagers and gives young Bedouin individuals the chance to spread awareness about their community and advocate for expanding economic opportunities.

As the Bedawi way of life shifts due to climate change, water shortages and the commercialization of desert areas, community leaders must rise to meet the challenge and tackle the economic issues faced with new methods. In response to increased financial insecurity, young adults in the Bedouin community have opted to become tour guides and implement their knowledge of the environment to educate others and produce revenue in the process.

In this pivot toward sustainable development and practices, ecotourism has become integral to creating a balanced way of life for the Bedouin people. To describe this economic sector succinctly, ecotourism is a method of promoting increased tourism to more remote areas of the world such as the Sahara Desert while also protecting the local ecosystem and informing visitors of how to support conservation efforts. In this manner, Bedouin nomads can produce the income needed for their daily lives without endangering the spaces they inhabit.

Thanks to the Bedouins Without Borders organization, Bedouin leaders and volunteers have designated specific regions as environmentally protected. The goals of establishing a protected area such as the Oasis include preserving land for animals to feed and ensuring that the Bedawi food sources remain abundant and plentiful despite climate change.

The Road Ahead

As a relatively new organization, Bedouins Without Borders has already established a dedicated group of volunteers and launched some promising projects to support its cause. As settlement conflicts continue in Palestine and Israel, Bedouins Without Borders remains diligent in protecting Bedouin interests and ensuring community safety. Currently, Bedouins Without Borders proceeds in its mission to inform people about the community and raise awareness by spotlighting young voices in the Bedouin Monitor section of its website. In 2021, it is hopeful that Bedouins Without Borders will further develop its environmental conservation and poverty reduction efforts for a better tomorrow.

– Luna Khalil

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