I recently read Nick Middleton’s short publication on this topic and decided it was worth blogging it here. I gave the publication 3 stars on goodreads; you can read my goodreads review of the book here.
In this post I’ll quote a bit from the book and add some details I thought were interesting.
“None of [the] approaches to desert definition is foolproof. All have their advantages and drawbacks. However, each approach delivers […] global map[s] of deserts and semi-deserts that [are] broadly similar […] Roughly, deserts cover about one-quarter of our planet’s land area, and semi-deserts another quarter.”
“High temperatures and a paucity of rainfall are two aspects of climate that many people routinely associate with deserts […] However, desert climates also embrace other extremes. Many arid zones experience freezing temperatures and snowfall is commonplace, particularly in those situated outside the tropics. […] For much of the time, desert skies are cloud-free, meaning deserts receive larger amounts of sunshine than any other natural environment. […] Most of the water vapour in the world’s atmosphere is supplied by evaporation from the oceans, so the more remote a location is from this source the more likely it is that any moisture in the air will have been lost by precipitation before it reaches continental interiors. The deserts of Central Asia illustrate this principle well: most of the moisture in the air is lost before it reaches the heart of the continent […] A clear distinction can be made between deserts in continental interiors and those on their coastal margins when it comes to the range of temperatures experienced. Oceans tend to exert a moderating influence on temperature, reducing extremes, so the greatest ranges of temperature are found far from the sea while coastal deserts experience a much more limited range. […] Freezing temperatures occur particularly in the mid-latitude deserts, but by no means exclusively so. […] snowfall occurs at the Algerian oasis towns of Ouagla and Ghardaia, in the northern Sahara, as often as once every 10 years on average.”
“[One] characteristic of rainfall in deserts is its variability from year to year which in many respects makes annual average statistics seem like nonsense. A very arid desert area may go for several years with no rain at all […]. It may then receive a whole ‘average’ year’s rainfall in just one storm […] Rainfall in deserts is also typically very variable in space as well as time. Hence, desert rainfall is frequently described as being ‘spotty’. This spottiness occurs because desert storms are often convective, raining in a relatively small area, perhaps just a few kilometres across. […] Climates can vary over a wide range of spatial scales […] Changes in temperature, wind, relative humidity, and other elements of climate can be detected over short distances, and this variability on a small scale creates distinctive climates in small areas. These are microclimates, different in some way from the conditions prevailing over the surrounding area as a whole. At the smallest scale, the shade given by an individual plant can be described as a microclimate. Over larger distances, the surface temperature of the sand in a dune will frequently be significantly different from a nearby dry salt lake because of the different properties of the two types of surface. […] Microclimates are important because they exert a critical control over all sorts of phenomena. These include areas suitable for plant and animal communities to develop, the ways in which rocks are broken down, and the speed at which these processes occur.”
“The level of temperature prevailing when precipitation occurs is important for an area’s water balance and its degree of aridity. A rainy season that occurs during the warm summer months, when evaporation is greatest, makes for a climate that is more arid than if precipitation is distributed more evenly throughout the year.”
“The extremely arid conditions of today[‘s Sahara Desert] have prevailed for only a few thousand years. There is lots of evidence to suggest that the Sahara was lush, nearly completely covered with grasses and shrubs, with many lakes that supported antelope, giraffe, elephant, hippopotamus, crocodile, and human populations in regions that today have almost no measurable precipitation. This ‘African Humid Period’ began around 15,000 years ago and came to an end around 10,000 years later. […] Globally, at the height of the most recent glacial period some 18,000 years ago, almost 50% of the land area between 30°N and 30°S was covered by two vast belts of sand, often called ‘sand seas’. Today, about 10% of this area is covered by sand seas. […] Around one-third of the Arabian subcontinent is covered by sandy deserts”.
“Much of the drainage in deserts is internal, as in Central Asia. Their rivers never reach the sea, but take water to interior basins. […] Salt is a common constituent of desert soils. The generally low levels of rainfall means that salts are seldom washed away through soils and therefore tend to accumulate in certain parts of the landscape. Large amounts of common salt (sodium chloride, or halite), which is very soluble in water, are found in some hyper-arid deserts.”
“Many deserts are very rich in rare and unique species thanks to their evolution in relative geographical isolation. Many of these plants and animals have adapted in remarkable ways to deal with the aridity and extremes of temperature. Indeed, some of these adaptations contribute to the apparent lifelessness of deserts simply because a good way to avoid some of the harsh conditions is to hide. Some small creatures spend hot days burrowed beneath the soil surface. In a similar way, certain desert plants spend most of the year and much of their lives dormant, as seeds waiting for the right conditions, brought on by a burst of rainfall. Given that desert rainstorms can be very variable in time and in space, many activities in the desert ecosystem occur only sporadically, as pulses of activity driven by the occasional cloudburst. […] The general scarcity of water is the most important, though by no means the only, environmental challenge faced by desert organisms. Limited supplies of food and nutrients, friable soils, high levels of solar radiation, high daytime temperatures, and the large diurnal temperature range are other challenges posed by desert conditions. These conditions are not always distributed evenly across a desert landscape, and the existence of more benign microenvironments is particularly important for desert plants and animals. Patches of terrain that are more biologically productive than their surroundings occur in even the most arid desert, geographical patterns caused by many factors, not only the simple availability of water.”
A small side note here: The book includes brief coverage of things like crassulacean acid metabolism and related topics covered in much more detail in Beer et al. I’m not going to go into that stuff here as this stuff was in my opinion much better covered in the latter book (some people might disagree, but people who would do that would at least have to admit that the coverage in Beer et al. is/was much more comprehensive than is Middleton’s coverage in this book). There are quite a few other topics included in the book which I did not include coverage of here in the post but I mention this topic in particular in part because I thought it was actually a good example underscoring how this book is very much just a very brief introduction; you can write book chapters, if not books, about some of the topics Middleton devotes a couple of paragraphs to in his coverage, which is but to be expected given the nature and range of coverage of the publication.
Plants aren’t ‘smart’ given any conventional definition of the word, but as I’ve talked about before here on the blog (e.g. here) when you look closer at the way they grow and ‘behave’ over the very long term, some of the things they do are actually at the very least ‘not really all that stupid’:
“The seeds of annuals germinate only when enough water is available to support the entire life cycle. Germinating after just a brief shower could be fatal, so mechanisms have developed for seeds to respond solely when sufficient water is available. Seeds germinate only when their protective seed coats have been broken down, allowing water to enter the seed and growth to begin. The seed coats of many desert species contain chemicals that repel water. These compounds are washed away by large amounts of water, but a short shower will not generate enough to remove all the water-repelling chemicals. Other species have very thick seed coats that are gradually worn away physically by abrasion as moving water knocks the seeds against stones and pebbles.”
What about animals? One thing I learned from this publication is that it turns out that being a mammal will, all else equal, definitely not give you a competitive edge in a hot desert environment:
“The need to conserve water is important to all creatures that live in hot deserts, but for mammals it is particularly crucial. In all environments mammals typically maintain a core body temperature of around 37–38°C, and those inhabiting most non-desert regions face the challenge of keeping their body temperature above the temperature of their environmental surrounds. In hot deserts, where environmental temperatures substantially exceed the body temperature on a regular basis, mammals face the reverse challenge. The only mechanism that will move heat out of an animal’s body against a temperature gradient is the evaporation of water, so maintenance of the core body temperature requires use of the resource that is by definition scarce in drylands.”
Humans? What about them?
“Certain aspects of a traditional mobile lifestyle have changed significantly for some groups of nomadic peoples. Herders in the Gobi desert in Mongolia pursue a way of life that in many ways has changed little since the times of the greatest of all nomadic leaders, Chinggis Khan, 750 years ago. They herd the same animals, eat the same foods, wear the same clothes, and still live in round felt-covered tents, traditional dwellings known in Mongolian as gers. Yet many gers now have a set of solar panels on the roof that powers a car battery, allowing an electric light to extend the day inside the tent. Some also have a television set.” (these remarks incidentally somehow reminded me of this brilliant Gary Larson cartoon)
“People have constructed dams to manage water resources in arid regions for thousands of years. One of the oldest was the Marib dam in Yemen, built about 3,000 years ago. Although this structure was designed to control water from flash floods, rather than for storage, the diverted flow was used to irrigate cropland. […] Although groundwater has been exploited for desert farmland using hand-dug underground channels for a very long time, the discovery of reserves of groundwater much deeper below some deserts has led to agricultural use on much larger scales in recent times. These deep groundwater reserves tend to be non-renewable, having built up during previous climatic periods of greater rainfall. Use of this fossil water has in many areas resulted in its rapid depletion.”
“Significant human impacts are thought to have a very long history in some deserts. One possible explanation for the paucity of rainfall in the interior of Australia is that early humans severely modified the landscape through their use of fire. Aboriginal people have used fire extensively in Central Australia for more than 20,000 years, particularly as an aid to hunting, but also for many other purposes, from clearing passages to producing smoke signals and promoting the growth of preferred plants. The theory suggests that regular burning converted the semi-arid zone’s mosaic of trees, shrubs, and grassland into the desert scrub seen today. This gradual change in the vegetation could have resulted in less moisture from plants reaching the atmosphere and hence the long-term desertification of the continent.” (I had never heard about this theory before, and so I of course have no idea if it’s correct or not – but it’s an interesting idea).
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