Conservation, Eco-friendly, Green, Sustainability

Xeriscaping Makes Beautiful Landscapes Even In Droughts

Xeriscaping is the key to having a beautiful landscape even in drought conditions.
Succulents are great to use for xeriscaping because they are drought-tolerant and beautiful. Image via Pixabay

A recent study showed than in 2010, Los Angeles was losing about 100 gallons of water per person per day. Lawns accounted for 70 percent of that water loss.

While that loss was probably mitigated by mandatory water use restrictions that were imposed in 2014 in response to the severe drought in the area, the restrictions were lifted in 2017 after an abundantly wet spring. Will the loss of restrictions inspire Angelenos to keep dumping water into their lawns, or have the majority of them come to see that it’s important to plant native, drought-tolerant species?

It’s hard to know as of now, but since Southern California is primarily desert, we hope that more Los Angeles residents have gotten in the habit of xeriscaping—landscaping with drought-tolerant, native species.

The fundamental principles of xeriscaping revolve around water conservation. Landscape designers look for ways to reduce the amount of irrigation and maximize the use of what natural precipitation there is.

Soil improvement is a key in xeriscaping. The ideal soil in a water-conserving landscape drains quickly and stores water at the same time. This may seem contradictory, but for many species, increasing the amount of organic material in the soil and keeping it aerated serves this purpose. However, if your xeriscape includes a lot of cacti or succulents, don’t do the soil amendments; those species are designed to survive in the untreated native soils of the region.

Using drought-resistant native plants is important in any xeriscape. Most of these plants have small, thick, glossy, silver-gray or fuzzy leaves; the way these leaves are made helps them to save water. Also, if you must have a lawn, make it a small one to minimize water use. And don’t put plants with high and low water needs in the same area, so don’t plant your succulents next to your lawn or fruit trees.

By covering the soil around plants with mulch, you’ll help the soil retain water, prevent erosion, and block out weeds that compete with the plants you want. Mulch needs to be several inches thick in order to be effective, and it will need more applied (a practice called “top dressing”) as the existing mulch blends with the soil.

When it comes to irrigation, soaker hoses and drip irrigation systems work the best because they help you avoid overwatering and deliver the water right to the base of the plant. They also deliver water at a slow rate, which is ideal for the deep and infrequent watering needed for a xeriscape.

The best thing about a xeriscaped yard is that it’s low-maintenance. You don’t need to seed or mow the lawn, or use massive amounts of fertilizer or weed killer. In fact, the only thing you’ll really need to do is ensure that weeds aren’t growing through your mulch (if they are, thicken the mulch layer) and that if you are using grasses, you keep them taller so that they become a natural mulch that shades roots and helps retain water.

Do you xeriscape? What are your thoughts on the benefits and burdens of xeriscaping? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Conservation, Nature, Science

River Dolphins and Amazonian Manatees Get New Protection

The pink river dolphin, gray river dolphin, and the Amazonian manatee, that will be protected under a new Peruvian law.
The pink river dolphin is one of the species, along with the gray river dolphin and the Amazonian manatee, that will be protected under a new Peruvian law. Photo: Shutterstock

Thanks to a newly developed plan, river dolphins and Amazonian manatees in Peru will finally receive protection.

Researchers from the University of Exeter in England worked with Peruvian officials for more than two years to develop that law.

“These species are only found in the Amazon,” said Dr. Joanna Alfaro, formerly of the University of Exeter. “Neighboring countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador already had legislation to protect them, but Peru did not. To bring about this legislation, we worked in lose collaboration with the Peruvian government, with support from [World Wildlife Fund] Peru, and held five workshops with local authorities.

Like other species of dolphins and manatees, river dolphins and Amazonian manatees face threats from climate change, fishing, and loss of habitat, not to mention pollution, noise, and boat traffic.

The new law, the National Action Plan for the Conservation of River Dolphins and the Amazonian Manatee, was approved by Peru’s Ministry of Production. It requires conservation and monitoring of habitats. It is also designed to bring about better management of the species’ habitats.

“We are delighted to have been a part in the development of this law, and we are excited to see the plan in full implementation,” said researcher Elizabeth Campbell. “It was a long process, but it showed how government agencies can work with non-governmental academics, private companies, and others.”

Professor Brendan Godley of the University of Exeter, who supervised the research, said, “We believe this action plan will aid conservation and reduce the threats that dolphins and manatees face in the Amazon today. It is a great example where research was used as a baseline for the legal framework to protect biodiversity.”

The University of Exeter project was funded by the Darwin Initiative, a UK-based grant program that helps to protect biodiversity and the natural environment through locally based projects worldwide. It provides funding to countries rich in biodiversity but poor in financial resources to meet their objectives in preserving that biodiversity.

Environmental Hazards, Nature, Science

Conservation Tillage Can Have Unanticipated Consequences

Conservation tillage can have unanticipated consequences when it's not combined with fertilizer management.
An algae-covered rock in Lake Erie. Photo: Shutterstock

The rise of conservation tillage, in which farmers leave the remnants of plants that have been harvested in the fields until they are ready to plant new crops, has helped to reduce erosion and soil loss. However, it might also be contributing to an increase of phosphorus in Lake Erie and presumably other bodies of water as well. This increase is mostly in the form of soluble phosphorous, which is being used more often in agricultural fertilizers. Unfortunately, it is also getting into rivers, streams, and lakes, where it is leading to dangerous algal blooms.

The algae feed off the phosphorus, and since there’s so much more of it, an overabundance of algae blooms. These are dangerous to fish and other animals, as well as plants, in those bodies of water. In 2014, an algae bloom in Lake Erie resulted in 400,000 people in Toledo, Ohio being unable to drink their city tap water.

In 2016, the American and Canadian governments took steps to start reducing phosphorous levels in Lake Erie by 40 percent, which should help, but more research is needed to discover the best ways to do this.

“Effective conservation is an adaptive process,” said study co-author Professor Andrew Sharpley of the University of Arkansas. “In the case of Lake Erie catchments, reduced land tillage dramatically reduced erosion, but without changing fertilizer management practices, this effectively trapped phosphorous at the soil surface.”

There is never one simple solution to the challenges of maintaining threatened or damaged ecosystems. That a solution has worked in some ways but failed in others does not mean that we should abandon it outright, but we do need to find ways to further adapt and improve our conservation efforts.

“The main lesson learned is that there can be unintended consequences of changing farm conservation practices, which should be recognized,” Sharpley said.

Ideally, further research into this problem will help us determine the best way to conserve soil and soil nutrients in agriculture, while also not leading to dangerous algal blooms in water ways.

Climate Change, Nature

Climate Change Could Cause Megadroughts Lasting 35 Years

Megadroughts lasting 35 years may become part of our reality if climate change continues at its present rate.
Photo: Shutterstock

Megadroughts, dry periods which can last up to 35 years, don’t happen often, but there is ample evidence that they’ve occurred in the American Southwest between 1300 and 100 BCE. We also know that major droughts, whether megadroughts or not, have destroyed several ancient civilizations.

Drought is something to take very seriously because recent a recent study led by Cornell University suggests that the chances of such a megadrought striking in the American Southwest will increase significantly over the course of this century.

As the average temperature around the Earth goes up, soil will have a harder time holding on to moisture, and the way water is balanced between soil, plants, and the surface will change. In places like the Southwest, which are already dry, this could be disastrous.

If global temperatures go up by 2 degrees Celsius over the next century, it will increase the chances of a Southwest megadrought over the next century by 20 to 50 percent. If they hit 4 degrees Celsius, that chance increase to 70 to 99 percent.

While “over the next century” may not seem too soon, bear in mind that the year 2100 is part of that century, as are the 34 years after it, and you could well have family members who live through it.

There is still hope, though. If scientists can develop a system to drastically cut greenhouse gases, something that a lot of researchers around the country are already trying to do, we can prevent the temperature from rising that much and keep the chances of a megadrought closer to what they are, which, while it isn’t 0 percent, it is a lot less likely.

“I wouldn’t ever bet against our ability to, under pressure, come up with solutions and ideas for surmounting these challenges, said study co-author Jason Smerdon of Columbia University, “but the sooner we take this seriously and start planning for it, the more options we will have and the fewer serious risks we’ll face.”

Climate Change, Nature, Science

Climate Change Speeds Up Snowmelt and Drought Risk Grows in West

Snow melts on Mount Rainier and water runs off the Wilson Glacier and disappears under the NIsqually Glacier.
Snow melts on Mount Rainier and water runs off the Wilson Glacier and disappears under the NIsqually Glacier. Photo: Jim Culp | FlickrCC.

In the Western parts of North America, mountains play a big part in the water cycle. Colorado and Washington snowmelt contributes to how much water is captured in the ground, used by plants, or makes its way into groundwater.

It also joins streams and flows downhill to cities and rural areas. Climate change can have a big impact on snowmelt as global average temperatures rise.

Water on mountains deposited in the form or rain or snow either evaporates or flows downhill. The way that water collects on the mountains has an impact on water flow. Rainwater tends to disappear more quickly, while snow takes longer to melt and allows for a more consistent, and longer, addition of water to streams and so watersheds.

The result is that, as we saw in Washington in 2015, if it doesn’t snow enough, you don’t get as much water coming down from the mountains in the spring and summer, and you end up with a drought.

According to a study performed by researchers in Colorado, rising temperatures can have a hug impact on how much water makes it from the mountains to the lowlands. Higher temperatures generally mean less snow, though not always less precipitation. But as we’ve already seen, snowmelt has a more gradual effect, and if water isn’t running downhill, it needs to be brought from reservoirs and other sites.

The key take away from the study is that water resource managers need to know how different forms of precipitation interact with their local environments, in order to best budget for water consumption during growing seasons.

Although the researchers have more work to do on the subject, this initial study should help western states and provinces deal with potential droughts a little better.

Climate Change, Nature

Saharan Dust is Part of the Global Climate and Ecosystem

The desert wind called Calima carries sand from the Sahara Desert across the ocean and into the atmosphere, as seen here on the Canary Islands.
The desert wind called Calima carries sand from the Sahara Desert across the ocean and into the atmosphere, as seen here on the Canary Islands. Photo: Frerk Meyer | FlickrCC.

The Sahara Desert generates more dust than any other desert in the world, and that dust impacts the globe in a number of ways. A lot of it ends up in the ocean, where it introduces nutrients that otherwise might not get there, and some of those same nutrients end up falling over land as well. The dust also blocks or reflects sunlight, which can impact the formation of clouds and hurricanes.

By exploring data collected over the last century, scientists have been able to track what kinds of impact the dust has had in the past. They found that events like El Niño, the North Atlantic Oscillation, rainfall in the Sahel region of Africa, the Sahara Low Heat, and even the Intertropical Convergence Zone, can all impact how much dust is generated, where it moves, and how quickly.

The strength of a Saharan wind called the Harmattan, which blows across the massifs of North Africa, is particularly important to the process. The various other processes and events work to change the intensity of the Harmattan, which in turn determines how the dust works out each year.

Using the data they had, the researchers figured out what was happening as far back as 1850, and then they looked to the future to try and predict how things will work out over the rest of the century. What they found is that there will be a decrease in dust generation, although they aren’t entirely sure yet what that means for the rest of the world.

On the one hand, it could have some unseen benefit for humans, but that might come at the cost of reduced nutrients in soil and ocean. Maybe more of the dust will stay in Africa and help enrich arable lands there.

It could also result in a general warming of the tropical North Atlantic, which might be more suitable for hurricanes and could have a very different impact.

Nature, Science, United States

The Science Behind the Death Valley Super Bloom

Wildflowers filled Death Valley for about two months during the recent super bloom event. It was the best bloom in several years.
Wildflowers filled Death Valley for about two months during the recent super bloom event. It was the best bloom in several years. Photo: National Park Service.

You may have heard about the Death Valley super bloom earlier this March from the abundance of photo essays on the Internet. In case you missed it, the super bloom is a period of rapid flower growth in Death Valley, one of the hottest, driest deserts in the world, where plant life is normally sparse.

During super blooms, there are flowers everywhere. Although by mid-March many of the plants are already fading away in the lower parts of the valley the can still be found at higher elevations.

Super blooms are rare, the last one was in 2005, and they’re caused by the El Niño effect. During these periods Death Valley gets far more water than normal. All deserts get some rain, and Death Valley is no different, usually netting about around 2 inches each year. But in late 2015, huge amounts of rain fell in the valley, causing flash floods that put several roads out of commission.

Much of that water seeped into the ground, where it allowed dormant seeds to grow, resulting in massive wildflower blooms. The flowers rest in the dry soil of Death Valley for years at a time, waiting for events like these rainstorms.

Combined with the subsequent mild weather of winter, these seeds were able to sprout and quickly grow. They then produce seeds before the temperatures get to high again, allowing those seeds to lie dormant until the next heavy rain season.

Twenty species of wildflower were on display in Death Valley for about two months, including the Desert Gold, with bright yellow, daisy like flowers that, this year at least, reached waist height in some places.

It’s a pretty potent reminder that nature is generally far more varied and resourceful than we give it credit for, and even in a place like Death Valley, life finds a way.