Want To Save The Planet? Flood The Deserts

By Matt Pomroy
14 November 2018
Climate Change, Desert, Flood, Water, Environment
An American tech company has a novel idea to help reduce carbon emissions

Activists, celebrities and governments have tried and struggled. Perhaps it will be tech companies that will save us from climate change.

It's early days yet, but Y Combinator, an American start-up accelerator that has helped promote and fund the likes of Airbnb and Dropbox, is now looking to help companies reduce their carbon footprints by introducing some wildly-ambitious ideas – “moonshots” – to help reverse global warming.

One of the four being considered is, intriguingly, to flood the deserts.

Flooding deserts – or large parts of them – would turn them into algae beds and could help reduce atmospheric CO2.

About 10 percent of the world's surface is desert and this plan would require flooding around 4.5 million sqkm of it. The Arabian desert is 2.33 million sqkm so we wouldn’t be able to do it all ourselves, but ours is the fifth-largest, and considering the two biggest (the Arctic and Antarctica – yes, technically deserts) are unsuitable, this could leave our region as a key contender to help save the planet.

Rather than a few huge reservoirs, the plan involves creating millions of 1 sqkm oases of desalinated water in which phytoplankton (microscopic marine algae) would be grown. That algae then absorbs the CO2 from the atmosphere - about 41 gigatons of carbon a year, which is more than we are currently pumping out.

Some climate change scientists and critics are sceptical such a project, at a cost of $50 trillion, would work, but the those at Y Combinator insist the situation requires innovative solutions.

“The window for easy solutions is already closed. Doing nothing is guaranteed suicide,” a company statement said, while Y Combinator president Sam Altman is quoted by NBC News as saying: “All of this stuff is scary. However, runaway global warming where we all die is also quite scary. ...None of this is where we would like to be. But here we are.”

The project could also help to irrigate the surrounding areas to propagate vegetation as well as provide fresh water to nearby communities. And all the oases would be monitored and have algae fed automatically into them by an army of drones.

A total of nine trillion cubic metres of water would be needed to fill the reservoirs in what would represent the largest infrastructure project ever undertaken. But we've never been scared of tackling huge construction projects in this part of the world, and our existing infrastructure could make this feasible.

The target date for this project is 2040, which gives us a little over two decades to get it done. It might sound fanciful, given the tech and construction required, but if you remember what mobile phones and Dubai looked like two decades ago it’s clear how much can change in 20 years. 

As ideas go it’s a “moonshot”, but as we approach the 50th anniversary of the mankind's first giant leap on the moon, it could well take that same sort of willpower, financing and big vision that got Apollo 11 from Earth to the moon to do something equally ambitions to save our ailing planet.