The Sahara Desert Goes Green

Could the strategic placement of renewable energy in one of the Earth’s hottest regions be the answer to climate change?

A recent study reveals that large-scale installations of solar and wind power throughout the Sahara desert could be the key to winning our global climate change battle. Desert dust is helping nature thrive by way of land, sea, and air. Plus, there’s always the bright side of desert expansion. Let’s take an in-depth look at at the quest for the Sahara desert to go green.

The heart of the desert

The largest hot desert in the World, the Sahara covers about 10% of the entire continent of Africa. At 9.4 million square kilometers, the Sahara desert is only dwarfed in size by the cold tundras of Antarctica and the Arctic circle.

It is believed that during the last glacial period the desert was much wetter and greener. The changes in climate have caused the Sahara to be ‘drying out’ for thousands of years. Today, the only permanent river that flows through the Sahara is the legendary Nile River, and the only lake is 1,350 square kilometres, Lake Chad.

The average annual temperature for the desert is 86°F (30°C), with temperatures exceeding 122°F (50°C) during its hottest months. The area is moslty sand, with 25% of the desert comprised of large sand dunes, some of which reach over 500 ft (152 m) in height. There are also mountain ranges within the Sahara, and some are volcanic.

Ecological importance of desert dust

There was a time long ago when the Sahara was a giant 400,000-square kilometre lake. Larger than all of the present-day Great Lakes combined. As the lake dried up its left residual nutrient-rich sediment that has proven to be fertile in helping the environment.

Where does the dust go?
Every year, approximately 182 million tons of Saharan sandy dust is carried up into the atmosphere. About 50 million tons of dust settles into the Atlantic Ocean or is trapped in falling raindrops just east of Africa. The rest of the dust continues to travel East, with 28 million tons falling on the Amazon Rainforest and another 43 million tons continuing further to the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. The rest remains trapped in our atmosphere.

The dust that reaches the Amazon provides a continuous supply of much-needed fertilizer, the results today are lushness. According to scientific research, the dust that reaches the oceans provides some necessary nutrients to deep waters. Even the dust left suspended in the atmosphere can be seen as beneficial in global cooling by bouncing back some of the sunlight. These millions of tons of dust act as a natural balance to climate change.

When too much dust is bad thing…
Red tides are known to cause harmful effects on aquatic organisms. Red tides have been traced to higher concentrations of desert dust in some areas. However, scientists believe that if it wasn’t for human-induced fertilizing, the desert dust would not cause as many Red Tide outbreaks.

Growth is ongoing

A recent study by the University of Maryland has revealed the Sahara desert has expanded by about 10% since 1920.

The study concludes that two-thirds of the Sahara desert’s expansion was produced by natural climate cycles driven by anomalies in sea-surface temperatures, such as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation. The study also suggests that the remaining one-third of expansion might be attributed to climate change.

Is greening the Sahara the solution?

The University of Maryland has proposed to turn the Sahara into the World’s largest hub of sustainable energy installations. The proposal calls for a massive 9 million square kilometers of solar panels and wind turbines. The project would be so large it could literally change the climate.

“Our model results show that large-scale solar and wind farms in the Sahara would more than double the precipitation, especially in the Sahel, where the magnitude of rainfall increase is between 20mm and 500mm per year,” lead author Dr. Yan Li, explained in a statement.

The increase of rain per year in the Sahel region would be enough that it would no longer be classified as a desert. A positive feedback loop promoting a 20% increase in vegetation and crop growth for an area that’s in need.

Sustainable energy for more power
The miles of panels and turbines would be capable of producing 82 terawatts of renewable energy annually. To put this in perspective, it is estimated that in 2017, the global energy demand was only 18 terawatts. Meaning the Sahara would be capable of generating over four times the current global energy demand. The location of the Sahara is in an ideal place for supplying all of Europe, the Middle East, and Sub-Saharan Africa’s energy needs, entirely with wind and solar power.

Will plans for a Green Sahara be implemented?

Sahara is a great location because it has ample wind and sunlight, it is sparsely inhabited, it is close to areas which are projected to increase their energy demands. The massive investment would also be an economic benefit for the entire region, as well as provide clean energy for desalination and provision of water for cities and food production.

A project of this scale has its share of moving parts, but the science says that doing so would provide some incredible benefits.Think about a solar farm as large as the entire United States, and wind turbines covering one-fifth of the Sahara. Now that we know about the importance of desert dust, and the extent of desert expansion, let’s focus on greenifying it.

Looking forward…
Sometimes the answer to Earth’s most pressing problems come from the most unlikely of places. The Sahara desert could be the location for the green solution to climate change. As unthinkable as it may be, dry arid sands could lead to environmental revitalization. The Sahara desert can be fertile soil for a more sustainable future and this could save the Earth.

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