A Sea Amidst a Sea of Sand
August 14, 2019 1:57 PM   Subscribe

The Sahara has depressions, below sea level or else relative to their surroundings. Ever since its geography was put to map, proposals have been made to flood the areas, terra-forming the desert, perhaps making it more livable. A similar project has been proposed in Tunisia. (Also, Wikipedia.)

Is this just a colonial fantasy, a turn at playing God?
Would this help the many while displacing the few?
Will it help with the ocean rise that comes with global warming?
posted by dances_with_sneetches (42 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
 


Now THERE'S a potential solution to sea level rise I hadn't thought of.

"Water's rising! Quick! Bail! BAIL!!"
posted by captain afab at 2:19 PM on August 14 [8 favorites]


Per the first article I'm not sure a North African Salton Sea is really a win. Saline seas are miserable. Plus if it was being filled from the ocean then it would concentrate via evaporation and become even more saline.

From the second link: "Evaporating waters would trigger rainfall cycles and, over time, the soil would become more fertile and apt for cattle breeding."

hm, well, ok, maybe. Or maybe the rain would fall elsewhere and you'd have a fetid saline desert lake.
posted by GuyZero at 2:25 PM on August 14 [21 favorites]


I think this could be applied to parts of Australia and the Salton sea in California too.
posted by Bee'sWing at 2:25 PM on August 14


The "lake" in the Qattara Depression is proposed to be connected directly to the Mediterranean. Therefore it would be a bay.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 2:27 PM on August 14 [1 favorite]


The only thing that makes what-could-possibly-go-wrong mass terraforming ideas even more awesome is doing the excavation with nuclear weapons. Bring back Project Plowshares!
posted by allegedly at 2:28 PM on August 14 [9 favorites]


By the way, I remembering looking at an atlas as a kid and I imagined this project. Remembering the other day, I decided to Google the idea. It had been thought of 100 years before me.

I haven't seen any calculations on how much this would affect sea levels, if these projects were filled.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 2:31 PM on August 14 [1 favorite]


Well, I at least want these ideas implemented as a Civ map, please.
posted by Navelgazer at 2:32 PM on August 14 [7 favorites]


#wormsign
posted by doctornemo at 2:40 PM on August 14 [15 favorites]


“Operation Plowshare, a US initiative to use nuclear bombs for peaceful development purposes”

I’m sorry, WHAT?
posted by gc at 2:41 PM on August 14 [9 favorites]


Oh mighty Shai-hulud
Keeper of balance
Bless the Maker and His water
Bless the coming and going of Him
May His passage cleanse the world.
posted by porpoise at 2:41 PM on August 14 [18 favorites]


The book 'The Firecracker Boys' is a great look at Operation Plowshare, and how it almost happened in Alaska to create a harbor using nuclear weapons as a proof-of-concept.
posted by jordantwodelta at 2:49 PM on August 14 [2 favorites]


Is this a colonial fantasy, a turn at playing God

Caught in a quagmire while trying a plan that's flawed
Replace all the sand, drown all the land and seeee....
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:50 PM on August 14 [4 favorites]


Um. Doesn't all that dust blowing off the Sahara fertilize the Amazon? I like breathing and we already have a Dead Sea and we KNOW WHAT TO DO ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE.
posted by Horkus at 2:52 PM on August 14 [6 favorites]


Atmospheric particulates traced to Saharan dust may be responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths a year.

Um. Doesn't all that dust blowing off the Sahara fertilize the Amazon?

Yes, it does. Although, if Bolsonaro has his way, we won't have an Amazon to fertilize much longer, so maybe we should go nuts with the nukes and the flooding and the Saharan Salton Sea.
posted by Aizkolari at 2:56 PM on August 14 [3 favorites]


Saharan Salton Sea

"Sahalton Sea", surely...?
posted by The Tensor at 2:58 PM on August 14 [2 favorites]


Only if you're Sean Connery tormenting Alex Trebek.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 4:05 PM on August 14 [6 favorites]


Humans have been accidentally terraforming, usually in very destructive ways, for thousands of years. So I think the automatic what-hath-God-wrought/we-musn't-interfere hand wringing is unnecessary. We're changing the planet, doing nothing is making a choice to just let those changes move forward unabated.

If introducing a lot of moisture in the Saudi desert can help slow desertification of other areas, or roll it back in areas that are already desert so that we can replace some of the land we're going to lose to global heating, we should probably be looking pretty hard at those ideas.

We've already aimed the airplane at the ground; this is probably not the time to suddenly decide to remove our hands from the controls because we've realized we're unqualified to fly. There's nobody else who's going to take over.
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:53 PM on August 14 [25 favorites]


All ahead full throttle!!!
posted by BlueHorse at 4:59 PM on August 14 [1 favorite]


There's a conceptually similar project for a Red Sea / Dead Sea Canal. The Dead Sea is a hypersaline lake (one of the saltiest in the world) that is fed by the Jordan River and has no exit; consequently it get saltier and saltier. Unfortunately, so much water is now diverted from the Jordan that its evaporative balance is upset: the Dead Sea is dying.

As the Dead Sea evaporates its shore retreats, which means that the hotels around its perimeter are now a great distance from the "beach". Worse, fresh groundwater flows in and dissolves the subterranean salt beds under the shoreline, creating sinkholes. The plan is to let seawater flow down to the Dead Sea (which is about 400 meters below sea level), generating electricity that can be used to desalinate the sea water for supply to Jordan and the Palestinian Territories. The remaining concentrated seawater will flow into the Dead Sea, restoring its evaporative balance.

There are genuine environmental and other concerns with the plan, but it's the only solution on the horizon for dealing with the Dead Sea's groundwater crisis; and it will help satisfy the increasing demand for water caused by climate change and population growth. It's almost an unambiguous good; consequently, it's being held up by stupid political considerations.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:08 PM on August 14 [8 favorites]


Don’t forget about Atlantropa! Drain the Mediterranean and create three new mega lakes in Africa.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 6:14 PM on August 14


Replace all the sand, drown all the land and seeee...

Why oh why did I not use "drown all the land in a seaaaa"?
posted by Greg_Ace at 6:22 PM on August 14 [1 favorite]


Would be so great if someone could invent a way to desalinate all that water on its way to the Sahara.
posted by amtho at 6:33 PM on August 14


If only there were a way to harness the sun's power to make the seawater fresh.
posted by tivalasvegas at 7:06 PM on August 14


Desalinated water aka RAIN seems like a pretty likely outcome of this.

I am 1000% pro desert greening. It is awesome.
posted by weed donkey at 7:17 PM on August 14 [1 favorite]


I guess we gotta do something with all that leftover water from damming and draining the Mediterranean.
posted by ckape at 7:27 PM on August 14 [1 favorite]


Assuming this was done with a canal and skipping all the hydropower stuff which insists that the lake has to be kept lower than the Mediterranean Sea...how much flow does the canal need to be able to keep the new bay at "normal" sea salinity? I mean, is the Med saltier than the Atlantic? Would the canal need to be a kilometer wide? 100 meters? 10 clicks?

Knowing humans, even if it was the same salinity as the sea it would soon become a fetid, polluted mess, but at least the water level and salinity is self-sustaining, for giant-ass-canal-through-the-desert levels of self-sustenance. An inland hyper-saline "lake" which exists just to generate a bit of power, easily replaced at much lower cost with solar in the same area, seems kinda dumb.

How much precipitation is "local"? All of it? I mean, when it rains on my house here in Puget Sound, am I being sprinkled with water evaporated just off the Washington coast, or am I being sprinkled with exotic Hawai'ian water, or? Just how much rain would be generated by evaporation, and where would it fall?
posted by maxwelton at 7:49 PM on August 14 [2 favorites]


I mean, the north African coast is not known for its rainfall, is it, despite the Med being right there? Where does the water evaporated from the Med end up, ultimately?
posted by maxwelton at 7:51 PM on August 14 [3 favorites]


An interesting case study to consider here is actually the Aral sea. It was a salty inland sea east of the Caspian, until all of its inflows were diverted for soviet - era cotton farming. The consequence of this was a massive desertification effect that led to considerable impoverishment of the area.

Now obviously creating a salty lake in the Sahara is not the exact opposite of drying one out in central asia. But it is a tempting parallel.
posted by Arandia at 9:19 PM on August 14 [2 favorites]


Where does the water evaporated from the Med end up, ultimately?

I don't know about "ultimately", but in terms of local weather patterns, the wind off the North African coast is generally offshore, and as a result I think the overall flow of moisture tends to be towards Europe. I suspect that, absent the Med, southern Europe would probably be a lot more arid.

Interestingly though, the effects are greater than appear at first glance... warming of the Med may be leading to stronger monsoons in the Sahel, south of the Sahara.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:52 PM on August 14


If water flows in and doesn't flow out then you're going to end up with a Salton Sea. It might be possible to encourage tidally-pumped circulation by using a system of canals and locks, but you can't just naively pump water in there and expect it to support a normal ecosystem.
posted by Joe in Australia at 10:41 PM on August 14


All ahead full throttle!!!
Yeah nah. The joke about rushing toward impending doom has stopped being funny.
posted by Thella at 12:18 AM on August 15 [1 favorite]


I’m sorry, WHAT?

*ahem* THEY WANTED TO SEE IF THEY COULD USE BURIED NUCLEAR EXPLOSIONS TO DIG BIG HOLES. SO THEY DID JUST THAT IN A TEST IN NEVADA.

May I present to you the Sedan Crater?

May I blockquote?
The explosion created fallout that affected more US residents than any other nuclear test, exposing more than 13 million people to radiation.[7]
Interestingly enough they trained the Apollo astronauts there before the lunar landings. It wasn't that long after the blast, under a decade.

Also, the geological studies of the blast confirmed that the meteor crater in Arizona is indeed a crater, because both craters exhibit "folding", where the top layers of the geology lift up and basically flip over like a large donut-shaped or inside out pancake - or, say, a donut shaped calzone - producing layers where there's a mirror-image set of layers where the surfaces of the two folds of geology meet.
posted by loquacious at 12:27 AM on August 15 [3 favorites]


And I'm putting this in a separate comment because it's a not snarky history comment.

I think I read most of the thread, and this has been left unsaid or unconsidered:

The deserts of Africa fertilize the Amazon. What happens to the Amazon rain forest without the dust of Africa?

What happens to Alaska and Cascadia without the dust from the deserts of the Gobi? There are green and not green places all over the world like this where they're actually very inter-related, because our planet isn't really that big.

Note that I'm avoiding nation-state names and speaking in bioregions to keep it apolitical.

Which also brings up a sort of geopolitical colonialism and how real world human politics might interact with or be the cause of these things.

And to bring it back to Dune and a terrifying idea of weaponized ecology and terraforming. A large nation state or landmass could, over a hundred years, perhaps ecologically damage or take advantage of another with some long scale plans like this either accidentally or intentionally or both.

This is unintentionally too close to "global warming is a myth!" or "ecology is bullshit" for me and I want to go scrub myself with moss and rainwater now.
posted by loquacious at 12:42 AM on August 15 [2 favorites]


I think this could be applied to parts of Australia and the Salton sea in California too.

I recall there having once been a proposal to dig a canal from the Gulf of Carpentaria/Great Australian Bight into the central Australian desert. (It may have been during the 1970s, and possibly one of the Whitlam government projects they sought funding from an Iraqi financier for.) It seems to have been abandoned, though I do wonder if, other than the costs, there would be other adverse consequences of bringing seawater to the desert in the Australian centre.
posted by acb at 3:43 AM on August 15 [1 favorite]


The book 'The Firecracker Boys' is a great look at Operation Plowshare, and how it almost happened in Alaska to create a harbor using nuclear weapons as a proof-of-concept.

Didn't the Soviets actually excavate a dam or reservoir using nuclear bombs?
posted by acb at 3:46 AM on August 15


I recall there having once been a proposal to dig a canal from the Gulf of Carpentaria/Great Australian Bight into the central Australian desert.

Maybe you're thinking of Ion Idriess' "Great Boomerang" plan? This has more detail.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:27 AM on August 15


Interesting; haven't heard of that one before. Though the plan I was thinking of specifically involved canals from the ocean.
posted by acb at 5:50 AM on August 15


The water is already there in Libya in many areas.
Its underground.
Distribution is the problem.
Nato blew a lot of the infrastructure up.
posted by adamvasco at 8:56 AM on August 15


In the past, high sea level meant that there were a lot of shallow seas around the world- the Cretaceous bone beds of the American west formed as part of the Western Interior Seaway. So the Sarah flooding would not be a novel thing, geologically.

I've visited both Meteor crater and the Sedan crater, and they are both huge-a$$ holes in the ground, much deeper than wide. A lot of water would be needed to fill one of the craters, and the surface area wouldn't be great for encouraging evaporation (I am not suggesting we do this). The radiation also wasn't that bad, as long as you stayed on the pavement and didn't touch ANYTHING.

A derail, but the Nevada Test Site/Nevada National Security Site is also the location of the Nonproliferation Test and Evaluation Complex, which purposely spills hazardous and biological materials to test them in real world conditions. I picked up a nifty "If it's a kill'r, We'll spill'r" handkerchief at the gift shop (yes, the NNSS has a gift shop!).
posted by Hermeowne Grangepurr at 9:48 AM on August 15 [2 favorites]


And to bring it back to Dune and a terrifying idea of weaponized ecology and terraforming.

This is one of my favourite Alpha Centauri tactics when playing verses the AI: raise a huge mountain chain upwind of their landmass. It's not an attack so preserves neutrality etc. but starves the heck out of their population base.
posted by Mitheral at 10:44 AM on August 15 [1 favorite]


Encouraging Libya (since it was mentioned by name) to treat their fossil water resources as the US has done with it's similar aquifer under the great plains seems..unwise. Not only would they get the same unintended consequences we have, but they would also be drying up the water source that allows oases to exist in the region, making the impacts even worse.
posted by wierdo at 1:10 PM on August 15


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