Terraforming a Planet: Can Humans Stop Earth's 'Desertification'?

Could the sci-fi classic Dune offer solutions to climate change and desertification?
Matthew S. Williams

Today, planet Earth and civilization as we know it face a terrible crisis in the form of climate change. Thanks to the impact of urban sprawl, industrialization, commercial agriculture, and fossil-fuel emissions, we are experiencing a worldwide phenomenon of rising temperatures, rising sea levels, increased droughts and storms, wildfires, and "desertification."

This last symptom refers to deserts expanding at their peripheries in response to diminished rainfall and hotter temperatures. Over time, this has the effect of destroying arable savannah and grasslands at the desert's edge, which triggers drought, the destruction of farmland, and other vital infrastructure - not to mention the displacement of human populations.

Interestingly enough, this phenomenon also inspired one of the greatest works of science fiction ever: Frank Herbert's Dune. Written in 1965, this novel remains one of the most influential works of modern literature, and not just within the science-fiction genre. Dune is one of the few works of science fiction that transcend genres, which is partly why it remains such a famous novel.

"Beyond a critical point within a finite space, freedom diminishes as numbers increase. This is as true of humans in the finite space of a planetary ecosystem as it is of gas molecules in a sealed flask. The human question is not how many can possibly survive within the system, but what kind of existence is possible for those who do survive."

- Pardot Kynes, First Planetologist of Arrakis

Thanks to Denis Villeneuve's film adaptation of Dune, Herbert's magnum opus is once again a focal point of interest for readers and fans of speculative fiction everywhere. But for those familiar with his work, Dune and the franchise it inaugurated is also an insightful examination of ecology and the complicated relationships that characterize living environments.

Appropriately, it all began with a visit Frank Herbert paid to the Pacific Northwest in the late 1950s. Here, he witnessed moving sand dunes that would inspire him to write a timeless classic that is especially relevant today.

Terraforming a Planet: Can Humans Stop Earth's 'Desertification'?
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Rebecca Kennison

'Moving Sands'

In 1957, Herbert, who was working as a journalist and writer, was one of many people who became fascinated by a developing situation along the Oregon coast that was being investigated by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA). In Florence, Oregon, residents were becoming alarmed by the encroaching sand dunes that were causing ecological and property damage.

Of particular interest to Herbert was how this issue mirrored similar problems in the Sahara region of Africa, the Chilean coast, and in Israel, where encroaching deserts were causing damage to arable land, farmlands and threatening the local people's survival. In addition to the USDA, experts were flying in from all over the world to address the problem.

The USDA's solution was to plant a species of beach grasses with unusually long roots. These were planted near the seaside city of Florence, Oregon, hoping that they would stop the sands from migrating. In July of 1957, Herbert finished an article on the project, titled "They Stopped the Moving Sands," and sent it to his agent for publication.

Accompanying the article was a letter to his agent, in which Frank Herbert wrote:

"Sand dunes pushed by steady winds build up in waves analogous to ocean waves except that they may move twenty feet a year instead of twenty feet a second. These waves can be every bit as devastating as a tidal wave in property damage… and they’ve even caused deaths. They drown out forests, kill game cover, destroy lakes, fill harbors."

Herbert also conveyed how similar struggles were taking place in "hundreds of other trouble spots all over the world." He also stressed how necessity and the pressing nature of the problem led to a creative solution:

"The scientist working on the Oregon coast found that the sand could be controlled completely by the use of one type of grass that will grow in such places and tie down the sand with an intricate inter-lacing of roots. This grass is extremely difficult to grow in nurseries, and a whole system of handling it had to be worked out. They tried more than 11,000 different types of grass before hitting on this one."

While the article was never published, Herbert's intrigue with and research into the matter would profoundly affect his writing. In time, Herbert would write about the nature of life, natural systems, and the relationship between environment and culture.

What is especially interesting about this aspect of Dune is how Herbert managed to weave real-world examples into the mix. Many of the practices he describes for capturing water in arid locations was inspired by his study of the Nabateans - a northern Arabian nomadic culture - and other cultures that adapted to life in desert environments.

Beyond their knowledge of the desert and how to move with the seasons, the Nabateans are renowned for building the city of Petra in modern-day Jordan - now a UNESCO World Heritage site. At its height, this city and its surrounding communities supported a population of 20,000 and became an important crossroads between North Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia.

Terraforming a Planet: Can Humans Stop Earth's 'Desertification'?
Source: Susanahajer/Wikimedia Commons

This was possible thanks to the Nabatean's impressive water management system, which consisted of capturing rainwater, storing it in reservoirs and cisterns, and distributing it through tunnels, water channels, and aqueducts to populated areas.

To collect freshwater, they also carved a system of concealed channels and dams into the sides of mountains, routing the water several kilometers to reservoirs and cisterns below. Particle-settling basins purified the water, and stone walls provided shade to keep it cool.

Herbert also drew inspiration from the nomadic Bedouins who lived in areas ranging from the Syrian Steppe to the Arabian peninsula, and the San people (aka. "Bushmen") who lived all across Southern Africa. These cultures were also highly adapted to life in semi-arid and desert regions and knew how to seek water and move with the seasons.

Herbert's novel coincided with the growth of the environmentalist movement, developments in climate modeling, and theories like the "Gaia Hypothesis" - proposed by James Lovelock in 1972. Nowhere was this more apparent than in the Appendices section of his novel, especially Appendix I, titled:

The Ecology of Dune

Herbert establishes very early in his book that Arrakis is a desert planet where water is as scarce as precious metals are here on Earth. Despite that, the planet still maintains a life cycle that is both rich and complex. The opening section of Appendix I describes it as follows:

"THE EFFECT of Arrakis on the mind of the newcomer usually is that of overpowering barren land. The stranger might think nothing could live or grow in the open here, that this was the true wasteland that had never been fertile and never would be. To Pardot Kynes, the planet was merely an expression of energy, a machine being driven by its sun."

Of the animals described by Herbert in the story, the most important are the Sandworms - Shai-Halud and the "Old Man of the Desert," as they are known to the Fremen. Fully-grown sandworms can measure more than 1300 ft (400 m) in length, can live for centuries or longer, and are the source of the spice melange (the most important resource in Herbert's universe).

There's also the kangaroo mouse, known as Mua'dib to the Fremen, which has ada[ted to life on the planet. Various species of birds were also introduced to the planet and adapted to the local conditions. As indicated in the story, many do this by becoming carrion-eaters and blood drinkers.

Herbert details the ecology of Arrakis through the story of Dr. Pardot Kynes - the Imperial Planetologist and father of Dr. Liet Kynes (a central character to the story) - who initiated the plan to transform Arrakis from a desert planet to a lush and green one. As Herbert wrote, it all began when Kynes enlisted the Fremen and began arming them with "ecological literacy."

Terraforming a Planet: Can Humans Stop Earth's 'Desertification'?
Source: Wikimedia Commons

As Herbert explained it, ecological literacy is a fundamental understanding of living environments. They are self-supporting and self-reinforcing, where every species occupies a niche and plays a vital role:

"There's an internally recognized beauty of motion and balance on any man-healthy planet. You see in this beauty a dynamic stabilizing effect essential to all life. Its aim is simple: to maintain and produce coordinated patterns of greater and greater diversity. Life improves the closed system's capacity to sustain life.

"Life—all life—is in the service of life. Necessary nutrients are made available to life by life in greater and greater richness as the diversity of life increases. The entire landscape comes alive, filled with relationships and relationships within relationships."

In this section of the Appendix, Herbert offers the most detailed look at the fictional environment he created, which was based on his own research of desert environments on Earth. Through the fictional culture of the Fremen, he showed how cultures here on Earth have been living with the desert (and fighting it) for millennia.

The Fremen began studying their planet using ecological methods - collecting core samples to measure temperature and moisture levels beneath the surface and mapping out long-term weather systems in specific geographic areas (aka. climate). In the end, they determined that Arrakis had been in its current state for thousands of years.

Specifically, between the +70° and -70° lines (70 degrees north and south), temperatures were consistently "desert-like," ranging from freezing nighttime temperatures of -2.5°F (-19°C) to daytime highs of 138°F (59°C). This allowed for "long growing seasons" where temperatures ranged from 51.5 to 84°F (11 to 29°C) and are ideal for terraforming.

This water didn't need to be imported, as Arrakis already had abundant amounts of it tucked away beneath its surface. The proof of this was "a glaring white surprise in the open desert" that proved that open water once existed on Arrakis. The description is based on pans observed in deserts across the world created by water evaporating and leaving minerals behind (like salt).

Once again, Herbert drew his inspiration from real-world examples. In the context of the story, this discovery led Kyne to understand the ecological cycle on Arrakis, something the native Fremen already understood on an intuitive level. The cycle began with baby sandworms ("sand trout") blocking off near-surface water and confining it to porous sedimentary rock deep beneath the surface.

Terraforming a Planet: Can Humans Stop Earth's 'Desertification'?
Source: Wikimedia Commons/NAEINSUN

The only issue that needed to be solved was water, as these regions experienced little to no precipitation. While Arrakis did have polar ice caps, these were not nearly large enough to meet what was required for terraforming. This water did not need to be imported, just captured and stored safely.

This allowed the desert to grow on Arrakis and for these "trout" to reach maturity as sandworms - to whom water is poisonous. The sandworms then created patches of "pre-spice mass," which consisted of water saturated with the precursor to spice. As the mass evolved, the chemical reactions taking place inside would lead to an explosion ("spice-blow"). As Herbert described it:

"Now they had the circular relationship: little maker to pre-spice mass; little maker to shai-hulud; shai-hulud to scatter the spice upon which fed microscopic creatures called sand plankton; the sand plankton, food for shai-hulud, growing, burrowing, becoming little makers."

As the series continues, it is revealed that the sandworms are not indigenous to Arrakis. They were imported (though it is never revealed from where) and Arrakis was turned into a desert planet to suit them. In other words, Arrakis was once green but was terraformed to become the hot, dry, rugged planet it is during the main story.

Transforming it again simply meant undoing this past transformation and returning it to what it once was. This is true of deserts here on Earth, where the sands slowly claimed once-arid or even wet environments as they expanded. Converting them back into fertile environments where people could live off the land is equivalent to restoration.

The 'flowering of Arrakis'

As Herbert would state many times through the Dune series, the transformation of an environment requires that a new balance be created. Attention needed to be dedicated to all of the system's parts and how they interacted and reinforced each other. As he described it (through the character of Dr. Kynes):

"The thing the ecologically illiterate don't realize about an ecosystem, is that it's a system. A system! A system maintains a certain fluid stability that can be destroyed by a misstep in just one niche. A system has order, a flowing from point to point. If something dams that flow, order collapses. The untrained might miss that collapse until it was too late. That's why the highest function of ecology is the understanding of consequences."

To create a new and self-sustaining system in the desert, complete with plants, animals, and carbon compounds for growth (from the long-term decay of organic material), the Fremen in the story needed to accomplish four major things:

  1. Capture moisture from the air and store it safely
  2. Drill aquifers in the desert (qanats) to access subsurface water
  3. Introduce plants to anchor the soil and allow for irrigation
  4. Introduce plantation (palmaries) with more complex life forms

To this end, the Fremen built wind traps into their Sietch communities to capture atmospheric moisture and drilled underground cache basins to store what they caught. Meanwhile, they conducted ecological experiments in their research stations using hardy plants that could survive in desert-like conditions - i.e., succulents, deep-rooted grasses, and shrubs.

Terraforming a Planet: Can Humans Stop Earth's 'Desertification'?
Source: Wikimedia Commons/Lydia7030

These were then planted on the downwind sides of old dunes, where the plants could take root. As Herbert detailed it:

"The Fremen aimed first for a cycle of poverty grass with peatlike hair cilia to intertwine, mat, and fix the dunes by depriving the wind of its big weapon: movable grains. Adaptive zones were laid out in the deep south far from Harkonnen watchers. The mutated poverty grasses were planted first along the downwind (slipface) of the chosen dunes that stood across the path of the prevailing westerlies.

"With the downwind face anchored, the windward face grew higher and higher and the grass was moved to keep pace. Giant sifs (long dunes with sinuous crest) of more than 1,500 meters [in] height were produced this way. When barrier dunes reached sufficient height, the windward faces were planted with tougher sword grasses. Each structure on a base about six times as thick as its height was anchored—'fixed.'"

Fourth, they began introducing plantations of more deeply-rooted species of plants, a list of which was included by Herbert.

"[C]henopods, pigweeds, and amaranth to begin), then scotch broom, low lupine, vine eucalyptus, dwarf tamarisk, shore pine—then the true desert growths: candelilla, saguaro, and bis-naga, the barrel cactus. Where it would grow, they introduced camel sage, onion grass, gobi feather grass, wild alfalfa, burrow bush, sand verbena, evening primrose, incense bush, smoke tree, creosote bush... date palms, cotton, melons, coffee, medicinals—more than 200 selected food plant types to test and adapt."

And of course, there were the necessary species of animals that would create a self-sustaining life-cycle and ensure a balance between the different organisms:

"[K]it fox, kangaroo mouse, desert hare, sand terrapin ... and the predators to keep them in check: desert hawk, dwarf owl, eagle and desert owl; and insects to fill the niches these couldn't reach: scorpion, centipede, trapdoor spider, the biting wasp, and the wormfly ... and the desert bat to keep watch on these."

All told, Herbert estimated that the world he created could be transformed (using the methods he described) in three and a half centuries. Aside from the way this detailed account described conservation efforts on Earth, it also proved prescient in many ways.

'Ecological Literacy'

In Herbert's own time, humanity faced significant challenges that indicated the need for change. In the late 1950s and early 60s, breakthroughs in earth science and climate modeling led to growing concern among scientists about the future of our planet. During this time, researchers began projecting how rising CO2 emissions would have a "radical" impact on the climate.

Essentially, meeting the needs of every person on Earth while ensuring we can live sustainably with the natural environment requires that we learn an "ecological literacy." Like people who've adapted to learn in the desert, living in a world characterized by climate change will require creativity and the ability to adapt to changing conditions.

Terraforming a Planet: Can Humans Stop Earth's 'Desertification'?
Source: NASA

In the past forty years, the need for sustainable living solutions has become all the more pressing thanks to how CO2 emissions and global warming have proceeded at an unprecedented rate. Luckily, this crisis has also inspired innovative and creative solutions, many of which are based on the "ecological literacy" of ancient cultures.

While the long-term aim is to develop alternative energy and fuels that would reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, technologies that allow us to make the most of our resources are what's needed in the meantime. Like so many aspects of his work, Frank Herbert's thoughts on humanity and ecology have only become more relevant with time!

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