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Earth Science

Bacteria Could Help Stop Desertification 218

Posted by samzenpus
from the bactine-bulldozers dept.
Bridgette Steffen writes "In attempt to slow down desertification, a student at London's Architectural Association has proposed a 6000 km sandstone wall that will not only act as a break across the Sahara Desert, but also serve as refugee shelter. Last fall it won first prize in the Holcim Foundation's Awards for Sustainable Construction, and will use bacteria to solidify the sandstone."
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Bacteria Could Help Stop Desertification

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  • Welcome our brick and mortar overlords.

  • by timmarhy (659436) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @12:46AM (#27855715)
    why exactly are we to interfer with this process?
    • by ustolemyname (1301665) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @12:48AM (#27855723)
      Because humans always assume that the way things are is the best way for them to be.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by Gravedigger3 (888675)
        Perhaps because most of the times when man believes himself wiser than nature we end up learning different.
        • by Sir_Lewk (967686) <sirlewk@nospaM.gmail.com> on Thursday May 07, 2009 @01:03AM (#27855807)

          Nature is not "wise", and it is wrong to personify it or otherwise assume otherwise. All nature does is follow the path of least resistance.

          • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

            follow the path of least resistance.

            That's how I'm working on my thesis.

          • by rolfwind (528248) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @01:33AM (#27855951)

            I was watching a program last night about the evolution of the planet, something about vulcanic activity and the superplume, and other things, as well as the evolution of the first landwalkers (tulogs?) that basically looked like a cross between crocodiles and fish, among all the changes in the environment, as well as mass ocean pollution (millions of years ago) killing a vast number of species.

            When someone says nature is wise, they probably are romantizing how much "nature"/god? cares about our survival as a species but also don't want to be at the short end of the evolutionary stick when nature shows it' uncaring side and things change. I'm sure a man-made solutions to various things would be welcomed with open arms then.

          • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

            by Gravedigger3 (888675)
            This article proposes that we could influence the climate of a large part of the African continent using a wall, albeit a very imaginative wall.

            This seems to have 2 very obvious problems...

            first of all, this [flickr.com] is what they are talking about harnessing with that wall. I hope those bacteria aren't afraid of heights.

            Second, I am no environmentalist (proud to say), but seems to me that making such a large impact on the worlds climate (and the Sahara sandstorm is a force that has effects on the entire globe)

            • If there is truly "balance" to be had in nature, then it will happen no matter what we do. If it doesn't, then any concept of such a balance is a fiction.
          • Nature is not "wise", and it is wrong to personify it

            Yeah man she hates that!

      • by 4D6963 (933028)

        Yeah, pesky humans, just because the desert ruins their crops and invades their village they feel the need to prevent it from doing so. Please people wise up and let Mother Nature in its infinite wisdom and consideration destroy all you have and ruin your life. For interfering with her might anger her.

        Now if you'll excuse me I need to catch my plane to Holland, got some dams standing in the way of Mother Nature that need to be take care of.

        • by drinkypoo (153816)

          The truth is more that interfering with nature is fairly futile, and it would be wiser to live in concert with it instead of fighting it all the time. For instance, we have a huge problem with fires in California. The natives just lived in baskets and set them on fire every year; regular fire keeps the forest healthy. The Pomo people lived in this area for at least ten thousand years so obviously they were doing something right. Their population was a lot lower, but you can still have centralized farming. Y

    • by The Yuckinator (898499) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @12:49AM (#27855737)
      It's what we do. We interfere with processes all the time.

      I'm a big fan of interfering.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 07, 2009 @12:59AM (#27855777)

      why exactly are we to interfer with this process?

      Because moving the farmers would require something approaching socialism, and not moving the farmers would require something appraching starvation.

      Moving the desert is a better choice.

    • by mog007 (677810)

      Considering that the desertification of the Sahara will eventually stop, and recede, and turn the desert back into a temperate climate when the Earth's precession realigns it to what it was like several thousand years ago.

    • by interkin3tic (1469267) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @03:28AM (#27856493)

      why exactly are we to interfer with this process?

      Gotta do SOMETHING with all that bacteria and sand.

    • by Antique Geekmeister (740220) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @05:35AM (#27857183)

      Because we _caused_ the desert. Overpopulation, Overgrazing goats, digging for aquifers, using imported fertilizers, etc., helped destroy modest existing ecosystems that stabilized the soil and retained soil at the desert's border. Looked at over thousands of years of geological and archaelogical history, it seems clear that humans created or wildly expanded the deserts. There were amazing small areas that weren't overfarmed and avoided overpopulated, as experiments, and they showed up as remaining green and fertile as the desert grew right past them. It made the cause of desert growth quite clear.

    • by daem0n1x (748565) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @08:09AM (#27857951)

      Because we are the main responsible [wikipedia.org] for desertification.

      I live in the south of Europe. It's highly likely that the Sahara crosses the Gibraltar Strait and comes knocking on my door. When that happens we'll all wish we have "interfered" more.

      Up to the moment, the unbelievable stupidity (from politicians, companies and common people) in managing land goes to such an extent that makes me wonder if it's not intentional and there's a hidden conspiracy to turn my country into a desert.

      Better start thinking about buying a camel.

  • Specifics (Score:5, Informative)

    by gcnaddict (841664) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @12:49AM (#27855733)
    So basically, Bacillus Pasteurii will be used to actually turn the sand into sandstone instead of waiting for thousands of years or using other kinds of walls.

    To be honest, the part which is more interesting is the fact that desertification will be stopped by using a wall. Sure, the Slashdot summary used bacteria as a hook, but in all honesty, the wall is more important than the bacteria anyway, which is why there's only a small mention of the bacteria in the source article.
  • by ianare (1132971) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @12:52AM (#27855755)

    A main part of the problem is that sand storms blow so much sand on surrounding grasslands, it kills the plants and spreads the desert. I don't see how a wall could help, unless it was kilometers high. It would need to stop this [wikimedia.org] ?

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Tubal-Cain (1289912)
      If most of the sand blows along the ground, it will collect at the base of the wall until it becomes a long sand dune. Since they are using bacteria, I could imagine them then solidifying the uppermost portion of the dune to make it higher. Rinse and repeat until your mountain (or hill) chain stops growing.
    • by evilviper (135110) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @01:21AM (#27855893) Journal

      I don't see how a wall could help, unless it was kilometers high. It would need to stop this ?

      The vast majority of the sand is traveling very low to the ground. Sure, there's still a nice big dust cloud up high, but that big tall plume represents the least dense of the material, which is why it rises to the top.

      You're essentially asking, "why have a sea wall if the very tops of the largest waves might still occasionally break over the top?"

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Sir_Lewk (967686)

        I'm personally wondering what would prevent this wall from just catalyzing the formation of a massive sand dune, which would eventually rise above the wall, effectively rendering the wall useless. Unlike the Ocean, once sand rises up against the wall it isn't going to flow back out later.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by polymeris (902231)

          Unlike the Ocean, once sand rises up against the wall it isn't going to flow back out later.

          Unlike the ocean? Same thing happens there. Actually in some places walls are constructed along coastlines to trap sand for beach nourishment.

          • by fotbr (855184)

            Desert wall designed to stop sand, sea wall designed to stop ocean water. Waves will over-top a sea wall on occasion, but the water (what you're trying to keep out) doesn't stack up against the wall, it flows back out.

            Wall designed to stop sand, as you said, catches sand. Eventually enough sand stacks up against the wall that sand is blown over the wall, making the wall useless.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by ianare (1132971)

        Well they have the same problem with desertification in China, where the Gobi and 2 other smaller deserts are growing. Beijing gets regular sandstorms now because of this. It seems like mountains and yes, the Great Wall of China, has little effect in preventing these.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by evilviper (135110)

          It seems like mountains and yes, the Great Wall of China, has little effect in preventing these.

          The great wall of China wasn't designed as a wind break. In fact it's in the worst possible location (right at the top of mountains), presenting the bare minimum of resistance to updraft airflow.

      • The main trouble I see (IMHO all this post, by the way) is not by the sand that flies higher than the wall as for the sand that get stopped at the bottom of the wall. I'd think that the sand that accumulates there will progresively form a half-dune. Once this happens, one of two might be the end:

        1. The wall colapses due to the weight of the sand.
        2. (more likely) the dune causes the wind to go uphill so the wall is rendered useless.

        At the very least, the wall should be combined with other measures (growing plants

        • The main trouble is that where you used to have low water use grasses, you now have high water use crops. The result drains the water supplies, and food animals like goats are raised on the grasses, and they eat _everything_. So the stabilizing grasses are gone, the ground can't retain water. So what used to be stable grasslands is turned into desert.

          The same sort of thing happened in Oklahoma in the 1930's in the USA, called the 'Dust Bowl'. Look it up.

    • by MichaelSmith (789609) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @02:15AM (#27856169) Homepage Journal
      Years ago I read about a plan to build a huge wall (for want of a better name) in central Australia. The wall would be thousands of metres high with a triangular cross section. In effect, an artificial north-south mountain range. The idea is that a lot of water vapour crosses Australia without precipitating because it never gets pushed to high enough altitudes to cool and condense. The article also suggested that the interior of the mountain could be used to store grains. I suppose these days we would put Afghan refugees in there as well.
  • At first I read "Bacteria Could Help Stop Decertification," and I was intrigued at how bacteria could possibly have anything to do with PKI or SSL. Not that the actual topic is any less interesting...
    • I had the same de-certification read, only I was confounded about how bacteria could help teachers retain their credentials. (my brain processed it as a typical /. typo that got past the editors ... just like all the rest)

      How the hell are you supposed to pronounce that bizarre word, anyway?
      • by BobGregg (89162)

        >> How the hell are you supposed to pronounce that bizarre word, anyway?

        I had the same though. It's either DESERT-ih-fih-KAY-shun, which... I dunno, just sounds wrong... Or, it's deh-ZERT-ih-fih-KAH-shun, but I think that would be spelled Dessertification - which is the transformation of food stuffs into dessert. Example:

        "Overproduction of high fructose corn syrup by Big Food is responsible for the dessertification of American food, and Americans' resulting embiggenment."

  • Details (Score:5, Insightful)

    by interiot (50685) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @01:00AM (#27855783) Homepage

    The most information I could find is here [flickr.com] (the full-size images are pretty large) and here [blogspot.com].

    It's hard to pick through the information, but is this scientifically viable? Or is this the random musings of an architecture student focusing only on the architecture side, and ignoring the biology side?

    • The desert exists because of a climate shift; presumably you would need to change the conditions which cause desertification and frankly, I don't think that we could create a wall of enough size to change air currents sufficiently.

    • by goodmanj (234846)

      is this the random musings of an architecture student focusing only on the architecture side, and ignoring the biology side?

      I can't comment on the biology, but from a climate science perspective this is ridiculous. The designer has this vision of the Sahara as an endless sea of sand dunes, and thinks desertificaiton means the physical movement of these dunes to cover fertile areas. None of this is true.

      This wall will do nothing to make it rain more in the Sahel, and it won't stop people from overgrazing o

  • You use irrigation techniques designed for low-water environments and strategically place human settlements in areas that you need planted. Plantings and irrigation anchor the soil and add more water to the system.

    I know this is a scientific oversimplification, but I think it's been working well enough to shrink some of the Californian, Chinese, and Negev deserts.

  • As I understand the dune-grass in Northern Canada up through Oregon and Washington is invasive and a foreign species. It was originally planted as a way to stop erosion of some beaches and spread out of control almost overnight. What's to prevent something like this happening / getting out of control and wrecking the natural ecosystem of our planet's deserts?
    • by Locke2005 (849178) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @01:38AM (#27855975)
      Other invasive species that were intentionally introduced but are now wrecking havoc in the northwest include English Ivy, Himalayan Blackberry, and Californians.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by hairyfeet (841228)

        And here in Dixie we have "the weed that ate the south", also known as Kudzu [wikipedia.org]. In the south it was introduced to stop soil erosion and now that crap is everywhere. Telephone poles, abandoned buildings, pretty much anything standing still ends up covered in Kudzu. If you look at pics like this [wikipedia.org] ( which I have seen whole tracts of land, buildings and all, swallowed up like this) you see why we have to be careful about these great ideas of making the land better by introducing new elements like in TFA. What may

  • by S3D (745318) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @01:40AM (#27855983)
    Little googling revealed that bacteria could actually do it.
    Bacterial cement [discovermagazine.com] However bacteria need nutrient (urine base btw) to do it. It may happens simple concrete could actually be cheaper.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      Little googling revealed that bacteria could actually do it.

      Beats the hell out of reading the article!

    • by fractoid (1076465)

      However bacteria need nutrient (urine base btw) to do it.

      So... you're saying pee on the sand dunes to make them grow? That's awesome!

    • by Inda (580031)
      Very interesting.

      I use urine on my many compost heaps to get the process started. The bottles of yellow liquid I carry down the garden are not full of beer, as some may think.
  • by Mr. McGibby (41471) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @01:40AM (#27855989) Homepage Journal

    ...by artists so full of themselves that they think can understand and harness something like stone-making bacteria. I know many of these types. They want to discuss ad nauseum every single scientific advancement and it's cultural implications, thinking that they can make some important contribution to the field. It's obvious these guys don't have a clue, as they think that an ice-nine scenario is something that, first nobody thought of, and second is even possible. These are the same people who hear about the LHC and think that there's a good chance that the universe might implode when they turn it on. As if the world works like it does in the politically motivated somewhat-sci-fi books that are all the rage in these circles.

    Please, stay in the coffee shops in the village, discussing the importance of your latest pathetic attempt at relevance through putting mannequin arms in toilets bowls and calling it art.

    • Please, stay in the coffee shops in the village, discussing the importance of your latest pathetic attempt at relevance through putting mannequin arms in toilets bowls and calling it art.

      Problem is, they have the internets in those coffee shops. So they stay in their version of starbucks but with their macbooks and iphones, their attempts at proving that a little bit of knowledge can be the most ridiculous thing spread.

      I propose we build a wall out of bacteria and myspace pages to stop the "artistification" of the internet.

    • relevance through putting mannequin arms in toilets bowls

      Apply for a grant or other financial support from the Arts Council, or whatever your local tax-wasting equivalent is. That idea just might fly, if you write a bit more toad-screed around it...

  • Boring (Score:5, Funny)

    by Locke2005 (849178) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @01:48AM (#27856037)
    I propose genetically engineering bacteria that turn sand into chocolate in an attempt to speed up dessertification, with a side effect of feeding starving refugees.
  • by WetCat (558132) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @02:21AM (#27856191)

    I would love to see that bacteria stop my CCNA from expiration.

  • What is the evidence that there is any desertification? Where that is defined as deserts which are advancing, and whose advance is not containable by substitution of sustainable farming practices for unsustainable ones, such as over grazing by goats rather than mixed arable farming. That is, mixed crops and animal husbandry with attention to composting, manure and crop rotation.

    There is no such evidence. All that is needed is sensible traditional mixed farming. And a lot less journalistic blather about

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by interkin3tic (1469267)

      Where that is defined as deserts which are advancing, and whose advance is not containable by substitution of sustainable farming practices for unsustainable ones...

      Kind of a trivial semantic argument right there. Whatever the cause, whatever you call it, it's not good for people who are going to be living in sand soon.

      There is no such evidence. All that is needed is sensible traditional mixed farming. And a lot less journalistic blather about desertification that is not happening, global warming that is not happening, and how the one imaginary event is a consequence of the other imaginary event. And for well meaning idiots to stop subsidizing goats.

      It would be nice if they practiced responsible farming, yes. Why isn't that happening already? Is there another problem upstream of unsustainable farming practices that's causing everyone to farm stupidly? Like maybe dumb economic systems that make it such that anyone who farms anything besides goats is quickly going to lose the farm and be replaced

    • And outlawing goats. And reducing human population in the neighboring desert states to sustainable levels, particularly avoiding urban growth. And stable enough governments in these regions to maintan such policies.

      I'm afraid that while it's technologically sustainable farming you're suggesting, politically it's impossible. The populations there are not wealthy enough and do not give enough rights to women to curbe the population growth.

  • by clickety6 (141178) on Thursday May 07, 2009 @04:47AM (#27856943)

    Where do they expect to get enough sand to build a wall 6000 km long?

     

    • by negative3 (836451)
      That's kilometers, not miles. After conversion, that's only about 354 yards, so it's not that bad. Determining proper placement is probably the key.
  • Droughts far worse than the infamous Sahel drought of the 1970s and 1980s are within normal climate variation for sub-Saharan West Africa, according to new research.

    For the first time, scientists have developed an almost year-by-year record of the last 3,000 years of West African climate. In that period, droughts lasting 30 to 60 years were common. Surprisingly, however, these decades-long droughts were dwarfed by much more severe droughts lasting three to four times as long, scientists report in the 17 Apr

  • whatcouldpossiblygowrong
  • Does this sound uncomfortably like ice-nine to anyone else?

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