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The Desert is not “Nowhere”

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Scientific American’s frontpage carries the following story about bringing solar power to the deserts:

The vast and glittering Ivanpah solar facility in California will soon start sending electrons to the grid, likely by the end of the summer. When all three of its units are operating by the end of the year, its 392-megawatt output will make it the largest concentrating solar power plant in the world, providing enough energy to power 140,000 homes. And it is pretty much smack in the middle of nowhere.

The article starts from the assumption that existing deserts are empty, useless, wasted spaces. Deserts are dust, they are nowhere. If only we could make use of this void with energy arrays, it implies, we could solve our problems.

Araeoschizus darkling beetle, from California.

My home institution should know better. Deserts may be inhospitable to our own species’ delicate range of environmental tolerances. But they aren’t empty. Thousands of other species live in deserts, many already endangered by human encroachment. Deserts are some of the last wild places we have left. If we’re going to bulldoze them in the name of saving our imperiled planet, the least we could do is acknowledge the richness of their existence.

Saguaro, Tucson.


Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Sean McCann 10:18 pm 07/1/2013

    I agree.

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  2. 2. tseylin 10:48 pm 07/1/2013

    As a former desert-dweller, I appreciate this so much!

    A lot of desert species are classified as endangered because they’re so cryptic or their life histories operate on time scales that are challenging for humans to decipher (e.g., triggered by infrequent, ephemeral events). But these are also likely reasons that humans look at the desert and fail to see anything of interest.

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  3. 3. TheHymenopteran 11:19 pm 07/1/2013

    Here, Here!

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  4. 4. Chris Clarke 11:26 pm 07/1/2013

    Alex, thank you. As a one-time resident of the Ivanpah Valley, and someone who has camped on the present site of the Ivanpah solar site, it distresses me to see the valley’s astonishing biological diversity dismissed by Scientific Amercian. (More taxa per hectare than many old-growth forests, with plants centuries old destroyed to make room for a solar plant with a three-decade lifespan.)

    But it also heartens me to see moe people like yourself willing to speak up on behalf of this all-too-ignored ecosystem.

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  5. 5. Glendon Mellow 7:11 am 07/2/2013

    Well said.

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  6. 6. jtdwyer 7:51 am 07/2/2013

    Well done.
    lists the world’s two largest deserts as the Antarctic and the Arctic – hardly optimal locations for solar power generation facilities, I think.

    The third largest desert region is the Sahara, large portions of which contain mountainous regions and many very large dune seas. I have to chuckle thinking about any attempts to even construct large facilities in or near those areas. See the dune seas indicated by yellow areas in

    The next largest is the Arabian desert. states:
    “Weaponry used by the US during the Gulf War also poses a huge risk to the environmental stability of the area. Tank columns in the desert plains may disrupt the fragile stability that exists. In 1991, the movement of US tanks over the desert damaged the top protective layer of the desert soil. As a result, a sand dune was released and has started slowly moving downhill.”

    Large industrial construction activities could produce conditions making their subsequent operation unfeasible. In all desert areas frequent high winds and, in many, blowing sands might make maintenance of sensitive optical equipment more problematic than indicated in the SA subject article…

    The SA subject article quoted and linked – which more specifically states:
    “Even larger plants than exist today are proposed for construction in the coming years. Covering 4% of the world’s desert area with photovoltaics could supply the equivalent of all of the world’s electricity. The Gobi Desert alone could supply almost all of the world’s total electricity demand.” states:
    “Currently, the Gobi desert is expanding at an alarming rate, in a process known as desertification. The expansion is particularly rapid on the southern edge into China, which has seen 3,600 km^2 (1,390 sq mi) of grassland overtaken every year by the Gobi Desert. Dust storms, which used to occur regularly in China, have increased in frequency in the past 20 years, mainly due to desertification. They have caused further damage to China’s agriculture economy.

    “The expansion of the Gobi is attributed mostly to human activities, notably deforestation, overgrazing, and depletion of water resources…”

    Also see the Wikipedia entry for photos of advancing dune seas in the Gobi…
    I think there’s strong evidence of some technical disconnects in the engineering analyses supporting dreams of willy-nilly solarification of the world’s deserts…

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  7. 7. kienhua68 4:14 am 07/3/2013

    A cry to save the desert while at the same moment doing damage to so many other habitats and life forms.

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  8. 8. jonhuie 8:25 pm 07/4/2013

    It isn’t useful to be opposed to all forms and locations of energy production. Only articles that have useful proposals for generating energy (or conserving energy, or reducing overpopulation) are helpful.

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