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Posts Tagged ‘desert’

Photo: Javier Rubilar via Wikimedia.
Chile’s Atacama desert in flower.

I’m not much of a traveler, but when I see photos like the one above showing the desert in flower, I think it would be a treat to see that. Then I read that Chile’s flowering desert is in danger from tourism and I feel like I am actually doing my part by staying home. (Ha! I sound like the fox in the Aesop’s fable.)

Tibisay Zea reports at the radio show the World, “In Chile’s Atacama Desert, it almost never rains. The area is so dry that it even serves as a practice site for expeditions to Mars. But once or twice every decade, the skies open up and it rains, causing dormant seeds underground to grow.

“As a result, a spectacular ‘flowering desert’ of plants that are mostly endemic to the Atacama region attract tourists and botanists from around the world. But the great interest in the flowers is also the same thing that’s endangering them.

“This natural phenomenon of the blooming desert usually happens every 5 to 7 years, and it’s difficult to predict.

“ ‘There needs to be a perfect combination of precipitation and temperature for the flowers to bloom,’ said Monserrate Barrientos, a tour guide for the flowering desert in Copiapó.

“The most emblematic of the plants is a little pink flower — known as pata de guanaco, or ‘guanaco’s foot’ — that carpets large swaths of the desert during the bloom. Guanaco is a wild llama native to the area, whose feet look similar to the leaves of the flower.

“ ‘The leaves are thick, to [be able to] store water,’ Barrientos said. 

“For many scientists, the flowering desert is an exciting event, because it proves the resilience of certain types of flora, like the pata de guanaco, in the world’s driest desert.

“Benito Gomez Silva, a microbiologist at the University of Antofagasta, is studying microorganisms that are very resistant to extreme water scarcity. …

“But the flowering desert is facing several threats. One of them is climate change, according to Cesar Pizarro, a biologist with the Chilean Department of Conservation. ‘Longer droughts or heavier rains could affect the frequency of the desert bloom,’ he said.

Another threat is traffickers who collect the native plants, as well as visitors who pluck flowers to bring home with them.

“During his first visit to the Atacama region earlier this month, Chile’s President Gabriel Boric announced the creation of the Desierto Florido National Park for the first quarter of 2023 in an attempt to preserve the area.

“Environmental organizations have raised concerns in recent years about the possible negative effects of large numbers of tourists visiting the flowering desert, as well as the illegal trade of native flower species and the development of motorsport in the region. … An increased level of protection will ensure that tourists behave responsibly. 

“Chilean tourists Carlos Silva and Ana Maria Acuña drove 23 hours from across the country just to see the flowering desert. …

“Ana said that she’s been inspired by the visit. ‘Humans have a lot to learn from nature. It’s so resilient to scarcity, to difficulties.’

“Professor Benito Gomez-Silva agreed that there is a lot to learn. ‘It’s like translating the information that our little brothers, the microorganisms in the desert, provide for us,’ he said.”

More at the World, here. Nice photos. No firewall. Donations to the World welcome.

You might also be interested in my 2021 post “Returning Pilfered Cactuses,” here, about busting traffickers of Chile’s protected cactuses: “most likely the biggest international cactus seizure in nearly three decades.” 

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Photo: Michelle Groskopf.
At home in Arizona, James Turrell views plans for the access road to his giant desert artwork. “Tight contour lines near the center represent the steep slope to the summit,” the
Smithsonian reports.

What is the difference between intensity and obsession, and does the latter ever benefit humanity? Read this story and be the judge. It’s about an artist in his late 70s who as a young man spent a year in jail for teaching other young men how to avoid the draft — and Vietnam. An unusual person.

At the Smithsonian magazine, Wil S. Hylton describes James Turrell’s massive art project in the desert.

“It was a cloudless day in northern Arizona,” writes Hylton, “and James Turrell wanted to show me an illusion. We climbed into his pickup truck and drove into the desert. After a few miles, he turned off the pavement to follow a dusty road; then he turned off the road and barreled across the desiccated landscape. When we reached the base of a red volcano, he shifted into four-wheel-drive. …

“The engine groaned and Turrell gripped the wheel with two hands as we climbed. Here and there we lost traction and slipped backward a few feet, but eventually we reached the top. The desert stretched for miles around, a patchwork of green and gold and brown, with the snowcapped peaks of the San Francisco mountains on the horizon.

“Turrell pointed down. ‘You see how the area right below us seems to be the lowest point?’ he asked. I followed his gaze, and it was true: The desert appeared to slope toward us from every direction, as if the volcano were sitting at the bottom of an immense bowl. ‘But it can’t be,’ Turrell said, ‘or we’d be surrounded by water. This is an illusion that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry talked about. You have to be between 500 and 600 feet above the terrain for it to happen.’ …

“Turrell, who turns 78 this year, has spent half a century challenging the conventions of art. While most of his contemporaries work with paint, clay or stone, Turrell is a sculptor of light. He will arrive at a museum with a construction crew, black out the exterior windows, and build a new structure inside — creating a labyrinth of halls and chambers, which he blasts with light in such a way that glowing shapes materialize. In some pieces, a ghostly cube will appear to hover in the middle distance. In others, a 14-foot wedge of green shimmers before your eyes. One series that Turrell calls ‘Ganzfelds’ fills the room with a neon haze. To step inside is to feel as if you are falling through a radioactive cloud. In another series, ‘Skyspaces,‘ Turrell makes a hole in the roof of a building, then winnows the edges around the opening to a sharp point. The sky above appears to flatten on the same plane as the rest of the ceiling, while supersaturated tones of light infuse the room below.

“Turrell’s work can be found in 30 countries around the world. He has produced nearly 100 Skyspaces alone. … The volcano is different. It is Turrell’s most ambitious project, but also his most personal. He has spent 45 years designing a series of tunnels and chambers inside to capture celestial light. Yet Turrell has rarely allowed anyone to visit the work in progress. Known as Roden Crater, it stands 580 feet tall and nearly two miles wide. One of the tunnels that Turrell has completed is 854 feet long.

When the moon passes overhead, its light streams down the tunnel, refracting through a six-foot-diameter lens and projecting an image of the moon onto an eight-foot-high disk of white marble below.

“The work is built to align most perfectly during the Major Lunar Standstill every 18.61 years. The next occurrence will be in April 2025. To calculate the alignment, Turrell worked closely with astronomers and astrophysicists. Because the universe is expanding, he must account for imperceptible changes in the geometry of the galaxy. He has designed the tunnel, like other features of the crater, to be most precise in about 2,000 years. Turrell’s friends sometimes joke that’s also when he’ll finish the project. …

“One thing I came to understand about Turrell was that, deep in his marrow, the crater was not just a vision but a kind of duty. The decades of struggle to gather funds, perfect the design and continue work on the project were culminating in the twilight of his life with a painful recognition that time was running out. … He had, reluctantly, shifted his focus to drafting meticulous blueprints for the crater, so that if he did not complete it, someone else could. But there was little peace in that. He seemed to be torn between the forces of obsession and mortality.

“That began to change a few years ago, when Turrell got a call from Kanye West. Like countless others, West wanted to visit the crater. But for reasons even Turrell cannot explain, he agreed to give West a private tour. Late one night, they wandered for hours through the underground chambers, staring at the stars and basking in ethereal light. Afterward, West offered to donate $10 million to the project, which Turrell, who has received many more offers than actual donations over the years, regarded as a compliment, but little more. Then the money appeared.”

Whoa!

Read the whole story at the Smithsonian, here.

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Photo: Bobby Bascomb
Gabions are baskets of rocks that Valer Clark places in stream beds to slow the water as it rushes through in the rainy season. They’re part of her work to bring dried-up land back to life.

Having woken up today to more US nuttiness (our whole family could visit Erik’s mom in Sweden and bring back whatever germs might be there, but she herself will have to postpone her trip to visit grandchildren because she’s Swedish), I decided to focus on an American actually doing good in the world.

In this episode of Living on Earth, Bobby Bascomb visits land preservationist Valer Clark at her ranch in Agua Prieta, Mexico. …

“BOBBY BASCOMB: Today the lands of the Southwestern US and Northern Mexico are considered desert or semi-arid. But for a couple months each year the region is awash with water from the seasonal monsoons. The normally dry river beds fill with flood water and swell to create habitat for all manner of water birds and amphibians. The watery paradise is short lived though, and most of those streams dry up in a matter of weeks.

“But that wasn’t always the case. A network of streams, rivers and wetlands once crisscrossed the landscape. In fact, more than 150 years ago, around the time of the Civil War, people in the region struggled with malaria, a mosquito-born illness typically associated with tropical wet climates. In Mexico, I found a ranch owner that’s working on ways to keep some of that water on the land longer. … My journey starts at the Gadsden Hotel in Douglas, Arizona. ..

“The opulence of the hotel hints at an earlier time of prosperity and wealth. Valer says the whole region, north and south of the border, was made rich more than 100 years ago by the same things.

“VALER CLARK: This was copper, cotton, and cattle. The three Cs, you know, all in the early 1900s.

“BASCOMB: Those three Cs made a lot of money but heavily degraded the land. … When Valer first visited back in the 70s, decades of mining and agriculture left the arid soil dry and cracked, few trees remained and the river beds were deeply eroded. …

“CLARK: When I got here and started seeing the lack of water and seeing the situation, what it looked like, and the hills were bare, and there was no grass. And I thought I wonder if you could make a change. I wonder if there’s something you can do about this. …

“BASCOMB: Valer eventually bought and rehabilitated some 150,000 acres of land in northern Mexico and the Southwest US. That’s more than 10 times the size of Manhattan. And her work here has been transformative, says Ron Pulliam, … an ecologist, formerly with the US Department of Interior, and founder of the nonprofit Borderlands Restoration Network. …

“PULLIAM:  If you put hundreds of cows out on a small area here, you basically reduce all the ground cover. So, when the rain comes it just runs off the land rather than being caught up in the vegetation.

“BASCOMB: And keeping that rainwater on the land is the fundamental key to what Valer is doing to rehabilitate her property. More water will mean more grass and trees, habitat for the wildlife that was once common here. It’s sort of a build it and they will come philosophy. …

“CLARK: This is what we call a gabion, which is a wire basket that is filled with rocks.

“BASCOMB: That’s it, a wire basket full of rocks. They’re about 3 feet tall, some just 5 or 6 feet wide, others more than a hundred feet across. Valer and her crew have built more than 20,000 of them on her property. They all sit in riverbeds which are dry most of the year until the monsoon rains come.

[When] the gabions get to work, they slow down the water rushing through the river bed so silt can accumulate behind them, like a sponge.

“BASCOMB: Nearly all these trees have sprouted up since Valer began keeping more water on the land. Near the stream, a canopy of cottonwood trees towers over us and a lush green understory creates the feeling of a jungle that follows the narrow band of water. We continue our walk on the edge of the forest, which she says is a vital corridor for wildlife in the region.

“CLARK: We’ve seen ocelot, we’ve seen bobcats and lions and bears and coatimundis and javelinas, ring tailed cats. …

“BASCOMB: We drive past parched bare earth cracked into the shape of a hexagon and stop at a different ecosystem all together. …

“Instead of a riparian forest this is a wetland teeming with life. Reeds and cat tails poke up through the water. At least a dozen different species of brightly colored birds dart about, butterflies sun themselves, and bright blue dragon flies copulate in mid-air. Ron Pullium says this region is a hotbed for insect diversity, including some 450 different species of bees. …

“BASCOMB: [The next day] we walk alongside a small creek, craning our necks up, hoping to spot some birds.

“PULLIUM: This creek is interesting just in itself. It was protected by Valer because it was identified as the most intact fish stream in northern Mexico, and perhaps the most intact in all of Mexico. …

“BASCOMB: For all her ecological work, Valer is still mindful of serving as a model for other ranches in the region that depend on raising cattle for their livelihood. She removed most of the cows from her ranch when she bought the place. But she did keep a small herd and is very deliberate about where and when they graze. And it’s paid off. Her ranch manager recruited members of his family to enter three novio steers in a large cattle exposition.”

Read more at Living on Earth about Valer Clark and why preservation is so satisfying to her.

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Photo: Fadel Senna /AFP/Getty Images
The Sahara desert is seen creeping up on a palm field. Desertification can be reversed, but it starts with thinking big.

I’m always so impressed with people who think big about big problems. Here is a credible idea for keeping the Sahara desert from taking over more of Africa. Is it possible? Don’t know. But thank goodness for scientists who get fired up when they hear that something’s not possible!

Dan Charles has a report at National Public Radio (NPR) on how we could reverse desertification.

“The Sahara desert is expanding, and has been for at least a century. It’s a phenomenon that seems impossible to stop.

“But it hasn’t stopped at least one group of scientists from dreaming of a way to do it. And their proposed solution, a grand scheme that involves covering vast areas of desert with solar panels and windmills, just got published in the prestigious journal Science.

“Eugenia Kalnay, a prominent atmospheric scientist at the University of Maryland, has been thinking about this idea for a decade. …

“Her academic adviser at MIT, Jule Charney, was among the first to describe the vicious cycle that can lead to desertification. With drought, green vegetation disappears, and the light-colored dirt that remains reflects more of the sun. This cools the land surface, which in turn means that there’s less heat driving air upward into higher and cooler levels of the atmosphere – the process that normally produces precipitation. So there’s less rain, killing even more vegetation.

“Kalnay wondered if there might be a way to revive those atmospheric currents. ‘It occurred to me that the same [cycle] would go in the opposite way, so it would increase precipitation, and vegetation, and then more precipitation,’ she says.

“And then she thought of solar panels. They’re dark, so they don’t reflect the sun’s light. Could they heat up the surface and revive those rain-bringing air currents?

“Kalnay convinced one of her post-doc researchers to create a computer simulation of an otherworldly Sahara where 20 percent of the land is covered with solar panels. The computer model also turned the desert into a giant wind farm, covered with turbines. Kalnay thought they might also help boost those beneficial air currents.

“And the simulation turned out just the way she’d hoped. It showed rainfall increasing by enough to bring back vegetation. The model showed the biggest increases in rainfall along the southern edge of the Sahara, the area called the Sahel. …

“The super solar farm she imagines is huge, as big as the entire United States. And it would generate four times as much electricity as the entire planet consumes right now. Kalmay talks of novel high-capacity transmission lines delivering power to Europe and the rest of Africa. …

“She’s used to imagining the workings of the entire planet’s atmosphere. A few billion solar panels and windmills in the desert? No big deal.” More at NPR, here.

If you imagine it, it can happen. “The desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.” (Some translations say “crocus.” Check out variations on the quotation here. They all amount to the same thing: imagining “the impossible.”)

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Photo: CNRS / MADAJ / R. Schwerdtner
Mysterious 2,000-year-old camel carvings found in Saudi Arabian desert.

The lure of space travel notwithstanding, there’s still a lot to discover and puzzle out on Planet Earth. In this story, archaeological adventurers ask why life-size camels might have been carved 2,000 years ago in a Saudi Arabian desert.

Ruth Schuster explores the mystery at Haaretz. “About a dozen life-sized stone sculptures and reliefs of camels have been found in a markedly inhospitable site in northern Saudi Arabia. While camelid art has existed in the region going back millennia, nothing quite like this has been found before.

“The somewhat eroded statues are tentatively dated at around 2,000 years old, give or take a century or more, according to a collaboration between the French National Center for Scientific Research and the Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage reported [in] the Cambridge journal of Antiquity. …

“No associated artifacts were found at Camel Site that could give clues about origin – no hammers, picks or anything.  …

“For all the art, Camel Site seems not to have been inhabited. As the authors write, it ‘does not seem propitious for permanent human settlement.’ However, they point out, the fact that ‘this isolated and seemingly uninhabitable site attracted highly skilled rock-carvers is striking testimony to its importance for surrounding populations.’

“For instance, it might have been a place of veneration going back generations. … Or the site could have been a boundary marker. Or a rest stop for caravans. …

“The camels were carved in proportion. Muscles and heads, particularly the muzzles and eyes, and the thickness of the legs were individual. These were lovingly depicted camels.”

More about the work to uncover the story of the carved camels may be found here. I was surprised to learn camels actually emerged first in North America.

By the way, I once rode a camel briefly. I was five months pregnant with John. I think I pretty much just got on and then got off.

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The clouds on Wednesday were amazing here, and to share my photos of them, I first tried to find a cloud poem on Google.  But after reading several that weren’t quite right, I decided to change tack and see what I could learn about languages with numerous names for clouds.

That’s how I came across photographer and journalist Arati Kumar-Rao, who writes at Peepli about clouds in an Indian desert, where clouds are few and far between.

“There was excitement in the air. The horizon was flashing an intermittent neon in the darkness, silhouetting ghostly clouds.

“What are those clouds called? I asked. Chhattar Singh gazed into the distance, as if mining a lost memory. The words began to trickle — hesitant at first, then faster, crowding one another in his excitement. Those were kanThi, he said. And if they consolidate and promise rain, their name will change to ghaTaaTope. If the clouds become very dense, they’ll be called kaLaan.

“That night, the kanThi did not build up. It did not rain.

“Life stirred awake next morning under a pretty-patterned sky — tufts of white trailing in arcs and lines, horizon to blue horizon.

“We sat sipping chai and watching a distant wind ripple through a feathery, fruit-laden khejri. ‘Those clouds won’t rain either,’ I offered.

“ ‘Teetar pankhi’ Chhattar Singh replied. They had a word for this cloud pattern too – a perfect analogy that likened it to the pattern on the wings of a partridge.

“They say eskimos have 40 names for snow. I get that — they are surrounded by snow all year. The people of the Thar have just forty cloudy days in a year — and yet they have as many names for clouds! …

“The area I have been visiting over the past three years, the deep western part of the Thar desert, lies in Jaisalmer district. It is bounded on the north and west by Pakistan, in the east by Jodhpur district, in the south by Barmer district, and in the northeast by Bikaner district.

“The rainfall here is a meager 100-150mm, about a tenth of the national average and a pitiful 2 per cent of the rainfall Kerala and some other of the wettest areas in India get. For the people of the Thar, sighting clouds and rain are events. Memorable. Priceless. Because these moments hold the key to their very existence.” Read Kumar-Rao’s report here. I think you will like how respectful she is of Singh, controlling her instinct to ask a million questions.

My Massachusetts scenes don’t look much like the Thar desert, I know, but maybe clouds are similar everywhere.

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My husband has found some of his best reading-list ideas after checking out the obits. Sometimes I find blog stories there. This one is about a ballet dancer who brought her art to the desert.

The Associated Press reported, “Marta Becket, a dancer and artist who spent decades presenting one-woman shows at a remote Mojave Desert hall that she made famous as the Amargosa Opera House, died Jan. 30 at her home in Death Valley Junction, Calif. She was 92.

“A New York City native, she had performed on Broadway and at Radio City Music Hall. A flat tire during a 1967 camping trip with her husband to Death Valley, changed her life.

“They discovered an abandoned theater in a mining town. The couple rented the building, and Marta Becket made her debut in 1968 at the renamed Amargosa Opera House. In the beginning, only the three Mormon families who lived in the town at that time came to watch.

“The nearest town is 23 miles away from the opera house, but audiences filled its 114 theater seats so many times over the years that extra chairs sometimes had to be brought in.

“Ms. Becket wrote songs and dialogue, sewed costumes, and painted sets. She danced every Monday, Friday, and Saturday whether the house was full or empty. …

‘‘ ‘I love dance. I love ballet. It’s the world I want,’ she said in 2001. ‘It’s mystifying. I feel as if this is what I was intended to do.’’ …

“Her story was captured in 2000 in the award-winning documentary ‘Amargosa.’ ” More here.

I love that she danced even if there was no audience. That’s art.

Photo: AM Morris/The Las Vegas Sun
Marta Becket danced en pointe during the inaugural performance of “Masquerade” at the Amargosa Opera House.

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Photo: The Economist

Reversing desertification in Africa has to be one of the biggest challenges ever attempted. But if we believe that the longest journey starts with a single step, then the continent’s long journey is off to a good start.

According to the Economist, “Building a wall of trees across the width of Africa is a tall order. Solving the twin problems of land degradation and desertification poses a greater challenge still. But more than 60 years after it was first proposed, just such a project is underway at the edge of the Sahara. …

“In 1952 Richard St Barbe Baker, a British environmental scientist, proposed planting a swathe of trees across the southern reaches of the Sahara. The trees would block the wind and sand that move southward from the desert and improve the quality of the soil by binding sediment together and adding nutrients to the mix.

“Although Mr Baker was unable to convince others of his plan during his lifetime, the idea has since taken root. In 2005, Olusegun Obasanjo, then president of Nigeria, revisited Mr Baker’s proposition, seeing in it an answer to some of the social, economic and environmental problems afflicting the Sahel-Sahara region.

“An estimated 83% of rural sub-Saharan Africans are dependent on the region’s land for their livelihoods, but 40% of it is degraded—worn away by soil erosion, human activity and scorching temperatures—leaving much of it unfit for use.

“In 2007, Mr Obasanjo gained the support of the African Union. The Great Green Wall Initiative was launched the same year. Today some 21 African countries are involved in the project, which has grown in scope. Trees have been planted, but building a wall of them is no longer the priority.

“Instead, the wall of trees has become a vehicle for a wider goal: countries in the region working together to tackle climate change, food security and economic growth. Recent projects include abating soil erosion and improving water management in Nigeria, agri-business development in Senegal and forestry management in Mali.”

More at the Economist.

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OK, here’s one I bet you don’t know about. Like a couple super fathers I know, the sandgrouse father is devote to parenting. But when the fathers I know give thirsty children some water, it is likely to arrive in a bottle or sippy cup. The sandgrouse papa delivers water in his feathers.

Rick Wright and Mary McCann report at Public Radio International’s Living on Earth, “Sandgrouse – pointy-tailed relatives of pigeons – live in some of the most parched environments on earth. To satisfy the thirst of newly hatched chicks, male sandgrouse bring water back to the nest by carrying it in their feathers. It sounds incredible, and for decades, scientists thought it was just a myth. But it’s not. In the cool of the desert morning, the male flies up to twenty miles to a shallow water hole, then wades in up to his belly.

“The water is collected by ‘rocking.’ The bird shifts its body side to side and repeatedly shakes the belly feathers in the water; fill-up can take as long as fifteen minutes. Thanks to coiled hairlike extensions on the feathers of the underparts, a sandgrouse can soak up and transport 25 milliliters of liquid. That’s close to two tablespoons.

“Once the male has flown back across the desert with his life-giving cargo, the sandgrouse chicks crowd around him and use their bills like tiny squeegees, ‘milking’ their father’s belly feathers for water they so desperately need.”

Listen here.

Photo: Ian White, Flickr CC
The Feathers of Burchell’s Sandgrouse carry water for miles back to the nest.

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A 70-year-old California homesteader’s shack near Joshua Tree national park is now a light installation, Lucid Stead.

When architect Michael Graham Richard talked to artist Phillip K. Smith about the work, Smith explained, “Lucid Stead is about tapping into the quiet and the pace of change of the desert. When you slow down and align yourself with the desert, the project begins to unfold before you. It reveals that it is about light and shadow, reflected light, projected light, and change.”

To Richard, the disappearing act that Lucid Stead achieves with reflections is a revelation. “Sometimes the best way to be part of the landscape is to blend into it,” he says. “Animals have been using camouflage for millions of years for survival, but there can also be aesthetic reasons to want to disappear, at least a little.”

In Smith’s creation, he continues, “the desert itself is used as a material,” as is reflected light. Check out a slide show here , at Treehugger.com, which highlights the artist’s use of solar power. Be sure to note how amazing the “shack” looks at night (slides 7-9).

Photo: Steven King, Phillip K Smith, III/royale projects contemporary art

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