Back to the desert (the other extreme environment)

Returning home – Beware of the land mines

Upon arrival back in Israel, Roy and I needed to visit our more familiar extreme environment – the hyper-arid Dead Sea basin, where we are conducting a parallel study to our Cairngorms research.  We headed down to the Dead Sea – the lowest land point on earth – to learn about the ecology of the region and the impact of human activities on it from Dr. Gil Ben-Natan, ecologist with the Dead Sea – Arava Science Center.

Into the wild (at least the wild within 250 m of the car…)

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Something we didn’t see in the Cairngorms; the Dead Sea delineates the border between Israel and Jordan.

While a far cry from the lush and green Cairngorms, the region has a surprising high amount of vegetation, which survives on three inconspicuous water sources – fresh water springs, seasonal floods and a high, though saline, water table.  These water sources are naturally distributed by topography, and then redistributed by various human activities, such as roads, canals and embankments.  We drive down a two lane road towards two of Israel’s most geographically isolated communities, Ein Tamar and Kikar Sedom, which are the focus of our research.  We stop on the road – on one side low badlands and on the other, a flat, gently sloped plain that proceeds down the southern tip of the Dead Sea.  Paying no heed to the “beware of land mines” sign, Gil trudges straight into the brush.  I follow, trying to step exactly in his footprints at first…). A diverse set of vegetation associations are observed in strips – first the spring-fed clusters of reed grass, then, as we walk down the salt flats, the salt tolerant tamarisk, camel grass and salt tree, and then the even more salt-tolerant (and moist soil loving) glaucous saltwort and mamoncillo. These plant communities support a diverse animal community (the Dead Sea sparrow, gerbils, ant lions, porcupines, wild boars and foxes, to name a few) – and Gil points out the footprints, the scat and other bodily signs of animal presence.

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Bands of vegetation

Agriculture or salt flats?

After reviewing the spatial succession of plant communities, Gil leads us to a moist salt flat to give us the bizarre feeling of sinking into mud in one of the driest environments on earth on one of the hottest days of the year.  And then on to the evaporation ponds of the Dead Sea where agriculture run-off from the two agricultural communities mixes with flood water and Dead Sea water.  The result is visually pleasing until our attention is inevitably drawn the think swarms of mosquitoes busily producing their next generation.

IMG_8965On our way back to the main road, we drive through the communities’ agricultural fields.  Conflicts abound regarding the implications of their water use, drawing down the water table and speeding up the process of soil salination.  Further, the farmers would be happy to expand their fields onto the salt flats, but those flats also host unique ecosystems found nowhere else in the world.  In interviews with residents, we were hard pressed to find one who appreciated the salt flats as an ecosystem, or who found any particular ecosystem service that could be drawn from the flats (I’m eager to set up a meeting between our farmers and Alistair of Balliefurth Farms – maybe we will!). Many of the local residents valued the landscape, views and solitude, but none noted the salt flats in particular.  Like their contemporaries in the Cairngorms, who complained about midges, the locals here complain about the flies and mosquitoes.

This month Roy will circulate questionnaires to local residents in the southern Dead Sea region like those we completed in the Cairngorms and members of our team circulated in Russia.  Then we’ll settle into the real work – analyzing survey results, interpreting and looking for the policy implications for ecosystem service management in extreme environments.

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