CLIMATE SCIENCE

Scientist Forests the Atacama Desert to Battle Climate Change

To slow down climate change in Chile, a scientist from the University of Chile has developed a little oasis in the dry Atacama desert. The “green desert” absorbs high amounts of CO2 and is self-sustaining. The project stands as example for industrial companies in this desertifying country.

Scorching temperatures, little to no rain, C02 emissions from nearby mining companies: the Atacama desert is “no country for old men.”

But exactly there, in the driest desert on Earth, a Chilean scientist from the University of Chile has since 2012 been developing a “green desert” of four hectares.

Manuel Paneque has planted peppers and legumes, but the larger parts of his oasis are covered with several types of atriplex, or “saltbush,” which earns its nickname for the amount of salt it retains in its leaves. According to Cooperativa news site, Paneque sees the plant as crucial in his project for the amount of CO2 it can capture.

“It has a very high calorific power. It can be used for the generation of biomass to manufacture wood or as a fuel for bioenergy.”

The four hectares of land planted by the Chilean scientist can absorb approximately 36 tons of CO2 and are irrigated with wastewater from the nearby Zaldívar mining camp.

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Combating Desertification

But the saltbush possibilities stretch even further than reducing CO2 emissions. The project includes investigating which particular species of saltbush survive best with the heavy metals and salt found in the Atacama desert.

To make the usually sterile land more fertile, Paneque will improve the best surviving species in a laboratory, clone them, and then try to grow more arid forests in the desert.

For Chile, where, according to Greenpeace, large parts of the country are affected by desertification as result of the water deficit and constant drought, this is a desperately needed possible solution.

What’s Next?

The idea is to take the “green desert” project and replicate it elsewhere in Chile where desertification and CO2 emissions from nearby industries are present.

“If we know the carbon footprint of an industry, we can calculate how a company can do something, by planting a certain number of hectares to capture the CO2 it emits,” Paneque told Cooperativa. “This can be done in any industry and community.”

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