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Offsetting climate change: Turning deserts into forests

Thursday, August 1, 2013, 12:58 PM -

Can offsetting climate change be as simple as turning deserts into forests? Apparently so. 

This is the new strategy being proposed by five German scientists. It’s all about going back to the basics and using plants to help clean the air. After all, it is well known that carbon dioxide is the gas most responsible for climate change. And because plants absorb the gas and let out oxygen, they are great for combating the damage being done to the environment.

Most important to this process is something called carbon sequestration. This is when plants take in some of the carbon dioxide and store it in their branches, trunk, and roots. The rest of the gas is then released into the soil. This helps the environment because the carbon dioxide does not get re-released into the atmosphere. The proposed strategy would be beneficial because deserts are places least covered with plants. As such, the easiest thing we can do to help minimize climate change is to turn these empty lands into forests. 

It sounds so simple. So why hasn't it been done? For starters, finding a tree that can survive the poor conditions of the desert is difficult. The tree would need to be suitable for a dry climate that sees little water and which can still grow in the sandy terrain. 

But this problem has been solved. Using a diverse team of specialists, scientists have found one plant that could do this. The Jatropha Curcas is a short, poisonous, and very hardy tree. It can supposedly survive the harsh conditions of the desert including the severe heat, poor quality of soil, and the little rain that is received. The seeds found in the plant are also useful because they act as a sustainable and environmentally-friendly bio-diesel fuel. Scientists have proposed a pilot project which suggests that the plants be grown in the deserts along the coast of the Arabian Peninsula and that an irrigation system be set up to ensure the plants survive. If this works, the project will be extended to other coastal deserts. 

Although this could help combat climate change immensely, the study suggests a potential side-effect of creating these forests. Scientists believe that the increased plant life could cause there to be more cloud cover and rainfall. This may sound like nothing major, but manipulating the ecosystem could have other unforeseeable consequences. For now this poisonous yet hardy plant seems to be our best bet in the battle to fight climate change. Just like anything else, we won't know what effect this proposed strategy will have on the ecosystem until we try it.

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