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Turning the Sahara Green

No doubt, the consequences of climate change is the number one topic around the globe. The 2016 Paris Agreement solidified an international commitment to address climate change. The signers to the Agreement committed themselves to institute real-time remedial strategies.

But, what if a strategy to combat climate change results in climate change? This is the question addressed in an interesting research study published recently in Science.

Untapped Potential That Cannot be Ignored

The Sahara is the third largest desert in the world. This seemingly vast wasteland of desert topography, along with the Sahel region located to the south, appears to offer endless possibilities for producing alternative energy.

Seizing on this seemingly amazing potential, researchers launched an inquiry into the feasibility and consequences of using the Sahara and Sahel. They modeled an operation that would be more than 38 times the size of the UK and produce approximately four times more energy than is currently being consumed by the entire planet.

The Models Show Significant Potential

In addition to the massive amounts of alternative energy that could be produced in the Sahara and Sahel, the projects would also result in an economic boom. Energy generated by wind and solar would increase the region’s capacity to operate desalinization plants. More potable water means more water for municipalities and farms, improving the standard of living for all constituents. However, the researchers found a very interesting side effect.

A Saharan Alternative Energy Facility Would Change the Climate

The research study found that a large-scale deployment of wind and solar farms would change the Sahara’s weather. Dr. Yan Li, study author, and her colleagues calculated that wind farms, for instance, would raise temperatures in the Sahara and Sahel by approximately 2^C.

Solar panels would cause a smaller increase in temperatures. And even though the rainfall might be increased by only .025 mm per day, this would be almost twice as much rainfall as the Sahara and Sahel normally receive. The increased temperatures and rainfall would turn the Sahara green, something it has not been for at least 4,500 years.

How This Climate Change Happens

Wind turbines drag down warmer and more moist air to the ground, causing temperatures to rise. Solar panels act as a sink, meaning that very little of the sun’s rays are returned to the upper atmosphere. The land surface warms up resulting in higher temperatures.

On the face of it, the “climate feedback” identified by Dr. Li’s study, seems benign, even beneficial. But, researchers and policymakers see additional issues that must be explored before turning the Sahara and Sahel into a landscape of wind turbines and solar panels.

Are the Long-term Consequences Worth the Investment?

Even though the potential for massive amounts of alternative energy sounds too good to pass up, will the upfront investment prove to be wise over the long-term? And without public awareness, desert land that becomes green could ultimately be over-grazed and poorly managed. A new set of environmental disasters might unfold.

The research study gives environmental policymakers cause to be optimistic. More study is needed, though, before wind and solar farms can be installed.


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