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Solar, Wind Power Create Hotter, Greener Deserts

Morocco’s Noor-Ouarzazate Solar complex hosts the launch of the World Bank Middle East and North Africa Concentrated Solar Power Knowledge and Innovation Program. March 8, 2017 (Photo by Michael Taylor / IRENA) Creative Commons license via Flickr

Morocco’s Noor-Ouarzazate Solar complex hosts the launch of the World Bank Middle East and North Africa Concentrated Solar Power Knowledge and Innovation Program. March 8, 2017 (Photo by Michael Taylor / IRENA) Creative Commons license via Flickr

By Sunny Lewis

CHAMPAIGN, Illinois, September 6, 2018 (Maximpact.com News) – Wind and solar farms are known to have local effects on heat and humidity in the regions where they are situated. A new climate-modeling study finds that a massive wind and solar installation in the Sahara Desert and neighboring Sahel would increase local temperature, precipitation and vegetation. Overall, the researchers report, the effects would likely benefit the region.

The study, “Climate model shows large-scale wind and solar farms in the Sahara increase rain and vegetation,” reported in the journal Science, is among the first to model the climate effects of wind and solar installations while taking into account how vegetation responds to changes in heat and precipitation.

Lead author Yan Li, a postdoctoral researcher in natural resources and environmental sciences at the University of Illinois, said, “Previous modeling studies have shown that large-scale wind and solar farms can produce significant climate change at continental scales. But the lack of vegetation feedbacks could make the modeled climate impacts very different from their actual behavior.”

The new study, co-led with Eugenia Kalnay and Safa Motesharrei at the University of Maryland, focused on the Sahara for several reasons, Li said.

“We chose it because it is the largest desert in the world; it is sparsely inhabited; it is highly sensitive to land changes; and it is in Africa and close to Europe and the Middle East, all of which have large and growing energy demands,” he said.

The Sahara is the largest hot desert and the third largest desert in the world after Antarctica and the Arctic. Its area of 9,200,000 square kilometres (3,600,000 sq mi) is comparable to the area of China or the United States.

The Berber people occupy much of the Sahara, and Tuareg nomads continue to inhabit and move across wide stretches of the Sahara today.

The wind and solar farms simulated in the study would cover more than nine million square kilometers and generate, on average, about three terawatts and 79 terawatts of electrical power, respectively.

“In 2017, the global energy demand was only 18 terawatts, so this is obviously much more energy than is currently needed worldwide,” Li said.

The model revealed that wind farms caused regional warming of near-surface air temperature, with greater changes in minimum temperatures than maximum temperatures.

“The greater nighttime warming takes place because wind turbines can enhance the vertical mixing and bring down warmer air from above,” the authors wrote.

Precipitation also increased as much as 0.25 millimeters per day on average in regions with wind farm installations.

“This was a doubling of precipitation over that seen in the control experiments,” Li said.

In the Sahel, average rainfall increased 1.12 millimeters per day where wind farms were present.

“This increase in precipitation, in turn, leads to an increase in vegetation cover, creating a positive feedback loop,” Li said.

Solar farms had a similar positive effect on temperature and precipitation, the team found. Unlike the wind farms, the solar arrays had very little effect on wind speed.

“We found that the large-scale installation of solar and wind farms can bring more rainfall and promote vegetation growth in these regions,” Kalnay said. “The rainfall increase is a consequence of complex land-atmosphere interactions that occur because solar panels and wind turbines create rougher and darker land surfaces.”

And the development of solar power in the northern Sahara Desert has already begun on the dunes below Morocco’s sun-scorched High Atlas mountains.

Thousands of curved mirrors, each taller than a human, stand in rows as part of the Noor solar-power generating plant that is changing how the African continent produces its electricity.

The mirrors cover an area of roughly 1.4 million square metres. The first phase of this plant, which came online in 2016, generated enough electricity to supply 650,000 people.

By 2020, or possibly sooner, the US$9 billion solar power plant is expected to generate 580 megawatts (MW), enough electricity to power over a million homes.

It’s a game-changer for Morocco, a country that until recently imported 97 percent of its energy. In the near future, Morocco aims to become an exporter of power supplies to Europe, elsewhere on the African continent and the wider Arab-speaking world.

And the environmental effects of the solar installation are likely to benefit the region where it is located.

“The increase in rainfall and vegetation, combined with clean electricity as a result of solar and wind energy, could help agriculture, economic development and social well-being in the Sahara, Sahel, Middle East and other nearby regions,” Motesharrei said.

That help is much needed. According to a study published in March in the “Journal of Climate,” the Sahara Desert has grown by roughly 10 percent over the past century.

A research team from the University of Maryland analyzed data collected since 1923 and concluded that while the greatest causal factor of the growth of the desert that is roughly the size of the United States is due to naturally-occurring changes, a third of the expansion can be linked directly to climate change.

The expansion is not good news, particularly for inhabitants of the neighboring Sahel border region, as the increased heat changes fertile farmlands to dry, barren land.

This is the first study to take a century-long look at the world’s largest desert. The authors suggest other deserts may be expanding as well because of global warming.

“Our results are specific to the Sahara, but they likely have implications for the world’s other deserts,” Sumant Nigam, senior author of the study and professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at University of Maryland, said in a statement.

The Sahara Desert expanded over the 20th century, by 11 percent to 18 percent depending on the season, and by 10 percent when defined using annual rainfall.

The desert expanded southward in summer, reflecting retreat of the northern edge of the Sahel rainfall belt, and to the north in winter, indicating potential impact of the widening of the tropics.

The evaluation shows that modeling regional hydroclimate change over the African continent remains challenging, warranting caution in the development of adaptation and mitigation strategies.

The study points to far-reaching implications for the future of the Sahara and other subtropical deserts like it. With inadequate rainfall to support crops, there will be “devastating consequences” for the world’s growing population, the scientists said.

Natalie Thomas, a graduate student in atmospheric and oceanic science at University of Maryland and lead author of the research paper, said the next step for the team is to look at the rainfall and temperature trends that are driving the expansion of the Sahara and other deserts.

“The trends in Africa of hot summers getting hotter and rainy seasons drying out are linked with factors that include increasing greenhouse gases and aerosols in the atmosphere,” said Ming Cai, a program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Sciences, which funded the research on the Sahara Desert. “These trends also have a devastating effect on the lives of African people, who depend on agriculture-based economies.”

Featured Images:  A traveler walks the Erg Chebbi dunes at sunset in Morocco’s part of the Sahara Desert. October 8, 2017 (Photo by Brian Geltner) Creative Commons license via Flickr


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Jordan’s Refugees Must Drink

Jordan_Zaatari_Camp

By Sunny Lewis

AMMAN, Jordan, March 24, 2016 (Maximpact.com News) – Jordan, one of the world’s driest countries, is dumping much of its water into the sand – allowing 76 billion liters a year to flow from broken pipes, according to an assessment by the nonprofit aid organization Mercy Corps.

“By one estimate, the amount of water lost nationwide every year could satisfy the basic needs of 2.6 million people, or more than a third of Jordan’s current population. It is a tragedy of waste,” mourns the report, “Tapped Out: Water Scarcity and Refugee Pressures in Jordan.

Published in 2014, the report outlines urgent needs and provides key recommendations to guide institutional donor efforts and policies, advisories that are even more urgent today as distressed refugees from war-torn Syria surge across the border into northern Jordan.

Since the onset of the Syrian crisis five years ago, Jordan has borne the impact of this massive Syrian refugee influx. Today, those refugees account for about 10 percent of the kingdom’s population of 6.3 million, placing severe pressure on its water resources at a difficult economic period.

The Mercy Corps report quotes former deputy prime minister of Jordan Marwan al-Muasher, who warns, “Water scarcity is an existential threat to Jordan.”

An irrigation canal in Jordan, where groundwater levels are falling a meter each year. (Photo courtesy Global Freshwater Initiative)

An irrigation canal in Jordan, where groundwater levels are falling a meter each year. (Photo courtesy Global Freshwater Initiative)

Based on interviews conducted in three northern governorates in Jordan – Amman, Mafraq, and Irbid, the areas taking the greatest number of Syrian refugees – the Mercy Corps report asks donors to invest in long-term infrastructure development, strengthen government agencies and address the nexus of conflict and conservation.

A team of Mercy Corps engineers is working to rebuild the aging water system so that both Jordanian and Syrian refugee families will have enough clean water to stay healthy. Their work has already improved access to clean water for 500,000 people in Jordan.

Ghassan “Gus” Hazboun, Mercy Corps’ Water Engineering Director, said last July that in Jordan’s northern areas the leakage can be up to 70 percent of the water that flows through the network. “So we have water that’s already been treated, already been pumped from the aquifer to far-away places, and then we lose that water in the network,” he said.

“The best thing we can do, the only way forward, is to treat the network – to fix any damage and spare the waste of water. Reclaiming that wasted water is better than finding a new source of water,” said Hazboun.

Mercy Corps started with two wells in the Zaatari refugee camp, and now has three wells there, one well in Azraq camp, and several projects in host communities.

“We recently developed a well near the border between Jordan and Syria,” said Hazboun. “The water comes here, to the water treatment and filter area. And now we are ready to build a new pump station, control building, and a 500-cubic-meter reservoir.”

“This infrastructure is very important for the northern areas, including the city of Mafraq. The water we are providing goes to all the houses and we are supplying everybody, both Jordanians and Syrians,” Hazboun explained.

The World Bank is working to increase Jordan’s water supply in a different way.

On Monday, the bank released an account of its efforts to help the Jordanian government restore ecosystems and improve people’s livelihoods in the Badia desert, which covers about 80 percent of the country.

The World Bank and the Global Environment Facility are collaborating on a US$3.3 million grant to help the government create opportunities for the nomadic Bedouin livestock breeders of the Badia and make them more resilient to climate change and water scarcity.

Through the Badia Ecosystem and Livelihoods Project, this work is focused in Mafraq and Ma’an, impoverished governorates in north and south Badia with diverse, fragile ecosystems, unique archaeology and ancient history.

Livelihoods Project partner National Center for Agriculture Research and Extension (NCARE) is establishing rangeland reserves and reservoirs of rainwater for animal drinking. A mandated rest period in the reserves is allowing endemic plants, gone for 20 years, to re-emerge.

The bank also is supporting “high-value, low-volume ecotourism” by working with the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) to establish an ecotourism corridor in Mafraq that is already attracting other donors.

The project is expanding ecotourism by strengthening RSCN’s Al Azraq wetlands reserve and the Shaumari wildlife reserve.

All this work and investment is crucially important to Jordan, one of the world’s most water-vulnerable countries, but more help is needed.

Struggling with low rainfall, limited surface water storage, excessive groundwater mining and high dependence on waters shared by neighboring countries, Jordan now must also provide drinking water to hundreds of thousands of refugees.

In view of ongoing conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa, influential countries such as the United States should consider how to help the region’s vulnerable nations steer clear of destabilizing water crises, says Professor Steven Gorelick who teaches at Stanford School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and is a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

“Jordan is a peaceful and generous country that has absorbed hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees,” Gorelick said in January. “The U.S. is not sufficiently helping that country deal with the consequent stress of inadequate water supply.”

Countries in the Middle East and North Africa are over-pumping groundwater, he said. In Jordan, where people depend on groundwater for 80 percent of their freshwater, levels are dropping three feet (one meter) each year, and will likely be depleted by 30 to 40 percent within the next 15 years.

“Refugee migrations from conflict-torn lands and global warming-related extreme weather will likely worsen the situation,” said Gorelick.

Gorelick heads the Stanford Woods Institute’s Global Freshwater Initiative, focused on developing a comprehensive national hydro-economic model to evaluate new supply options and demand strategies.

The initiative is coordinating the Jordan Water Project, an international, interdisciplinary research effort aimed at developing new approaches for analyzing strategies to enhance the sustainability of freshwater resources in Jordan and, ultimately, arid regions throughout the world.


Featured image: Refugee child draws water in Zaatari Refugee camp in northern Jordan. Coming from a country with sufficient supply of water however, Syrian refugees are adjusting to water scarcity, especially difficult for mothers and children. (Photo by European Commission) Creative commons license via Flickr
Header image: A view of Zaatari refugee camp, where at least 80,000 refugees live, is located 10 km east of Mafraq, Jordan, June 2014. (Photo by Dominic Chavez / World Bank) Creative Commons license via Flickr