Reanimating the desert
Article Moonatic Agency
This article is part of The Care Revolution issue #2, written for Mustardseed Trust.
As we now understand, when it comes to ecosystem restoration, every location needs its own unique approach. But, as Maddie from The Weathermakers tells us, there is one specific spot that holds a key secret to turning climate change around. Welcome to the Sinai desert, a mountainous wilderness in Northern Egypt that sits between the Mediterranean Sea and the Red Sea. “If the whole world would be one organism, the Sinai would be its heart. It is broken now, but if you get it pumping again, it could mend a much larger area than the Sinai alone.”
But let’s start with this very special desert. In principle, we have all the ingredients for it to regenerate into a lush landscape. There is the Lake Bardawil on the Northern coast, holding the dormant microbiome of the eroded desert. We have the winds coming from the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean, and a 2600-meter-high mountain range in the south. Normally, a healthy biosphere would breathe out enough water vapour for clouds to form locally and shed rain in the mountains. But the Sinai soils have merely stopped breathing, and the few clouds that are blown in from the Mediterranean Sea, are not enough to kickstart a local water cycle that can sustain a vegetative ground cover. The exposed ground heats up the air so much that it is carried over the mountain range without releasing a single drop of rain. So, no water returns to the valley and the vicious cycle of heat, drought and desertification is closed.
Got the picture? Now let’s see what happens when we start regreening the area. According to Maddie, it all begins with mud. “In coastal areas, such as Lake Bardawil, you often find sediments from eroded – once fertile – lands. The Lake used to be around thirty meters deep but now doesn’t go down more than one- and-a-half meters. It was filled up with soil from the Sinai, that was washed down to the deltas on the coast. The water of the Lake is salty and in such an environment the sediments hardly sustain any life. But we developed a method to desalt and revitalise it. This allows us to restore the once healthy topsoil – a process that would normally take hundreds of years – and recreate the water cycle.” According to Maddie, once the natural system gets started, many regreening projects will fuel their own restoration in a virtuous cycle opposite to the desertification process described above. She points out that a restored water cycle can empower the ecosystem to become completely self- sustaining. “Starting from Lake Bardawil, we will regreen the desert gradually. Healthy soil fosters evapotranspiration, thereby generating a small local water cycle. We build this up to the point where the moisture content in the air reaches a level that it will not be able to pass over the mountain without getting rid of its water through rainfall.” And according to the Weathermakers, this restored water cycle will yield results far beyond the Sinai.
“Not only will the Mediterranean air hold more moisture, but without the hot winds blowing from the Northern side of the mountain, the Indian Ocean will be able to carry humid winds towards it. The mountain range will split this wind in two, allowing two wet currents to blow into the Middle East, Northern Africa and the Nile Deltas, generating more rain on site. And once you start regreening those areas, the changing local climate will work with you. Now you are not fighting desertification anymore: you’re helping nature to accelerate restoration by itself.”
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