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Week of 4 April 2003· Vol. VI, No. 27

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Fertile and fragile, desert surface a war casualty

By David J. Craig

Farouk El-Baz Photo by Kalman Zabarsky


Farouk El-Baz Photo by Kalman Zabarsky


From the toxic black mist spewing from burning Iraqi oil wells to the threat of biological and chemical attacks, environmental disasters from the war in Iraq will probably hinge on the tactics employed by Saddam Hussein and his henchmen.

But according to renowned geologist and CAS Research Professor Farouk El-Baz, television images of military vehicles churning up suffocating dust clouds in southern Iraq illustrate a less widely acknowledged environmental threat — the erosion of the desert’s delicate surface. What may appear to be a barren landscape is, in fact, a fragile ecosystem that relies on the stabilizing effects of an extremely thin layer of gravel blanketing large sections of the desert. Known to geologists as “desert pavement,” the gravel has protected underlying soil from the effects of wind for thousands of years, as well as helped trap water and sustain plant life on about 23 percent of the desert surface. But it’s no match for a tank.

“ The desert surface could have been put together by a master craftsman,” says El-Baz, who directs BU’s Center for Remote Sensing and is an expert on the origin and evolution of arid landforms. “The pebbles, which are between the size of a pea and a peanut, are spread very evenly, so the surface is just one grain thick. Yet it holds down the soil, which is actually quite fertile.”

The earth is fertile, he explains, because between 5,000 and 11,000 years ago much of what is now Middle Eastern desert was lush land with many rivers and lakes. And where once there were riverbeds and lakebeds, pebbles were deposited that now form desert pavement. Almost all of present-day Kuwait and much of southern Iraq and southern Iran, in fact, were once a huge river delta, El-Baz says, and are currently covered by gravel.

And when the pebbles are disturbed today, the wind picks up the exposed fine grains underneath and “blows them around forever, either in the form of sand dunes, which move around the land slowly, or as sandstorms that move in and out of the region according to the season,” he says. “The dunes cover farms, and they block roads and airports. They wreak total havoc.”

The sandstorms have serious ramifications for human health: Middle Eastern countries have higher than average rates of respiratory diseases, partially attributable to sand, scientists say, and the dust deposited in lungs has been shown to cause cancer. “When you’re in a sandstorm, the sand and dust gets in absolutely everything,” says El-Baz, who was born in Zagazig, Egypt, in 1938 and lived in the country’s Nile Delta region before coming to the United States in the late 1950s. “You can be wearing a handkerchief tight around your face and when you take it off to blow your nose, out comes sand. If you’re using a pen, fine sand gets inside it.”

El-Baz says that large military convoys traveling in the desert add “an enormous amount” of dust and dirt to sandstorms. In a 1991 study he conducted for the Kuwaiti government on the environmental effects of the first Gulf War, he and fellow researchers at the Center for Remote Sensing mapped surface areas directly damaged by military operations — including vehicle traffic and the digging of trenches — and those that had new dunes caused by military activity. They estimated that nearly 30 percent of the Kuwaiti desert was affected in some way. Their findings were based on time-lapse satellite images of the nation’s surface: patches of disturbed desert reflect more light than areas covered by desert pavement, because after thousands of years in direct sunlight, surface pebbles react chemically in a way that allows them to absorb more light.

Subsequently, the Kuwaiti government took several steps recommended by El-Baz to help restore the land’s stability — including pouring fresh gravel on large areas of disturbed desert. “Another thing that helps is leveling off land where trenches have been dug or mounds of dirt piled up,” he says, “because the wind will act on those areas more than on the flat areas.”

It is evident that studying the desert strikes a deep personal chord with El-Baz, who has worked tirelessly since September 11 to bridge the gap between Muslims and non-Muslims. Possibly his most important contribution to geology is his theory, established in the 1970s, that deserts are not formed by man’s neglect of land but by long-term natural cycles.

“ There has been a great deal of misunderstanding about desertification,” he says. He currently is using remote sensing technology to locate groundwater in the Middle East. “Between 1968 and 1973, when there was drought and misery in North Africa, the belief among experts worldwide was that the people there had misused and ruined the land. But we now know that the desert shrinks and expands in response to major variations in rainfall, which are related to major variations in the amount of energy the earth receives from the sun.”

The last thing the current dry cycle needs, however, is the destructiveness of military activity. “The effects of the war on the desert will be very long-lasting,” El-Baz says. “When a sand dune forms, it continues to blow around as long as there is wind.” And when the sandstorms blow out of Iraq to the south this summer, they will be larger than last year. “And then they will blow in again; these things go on forever.”


4 April 2003
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