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Don’t think of deserts as wastelands, researchers say, but as a key to our climate future

A corn plant that died before producing ears of corn remains on a field below Second Mesa on the Hopi Reservation on Sept. 10, 2020. Rising temperatures and years of drought are making traditional dryland farming more challenging for Hopi families.


This story, like many, starts with rejection.

Jose Gruenzweig grew up in the lush, green hills of Switzerland and studied the cold, wet forests of Alaska before settling into his current position as associate professor of Agriculture, Food and Environment at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Israel’s climate is notably drier than those he’d lived in before, with scarce rainfall, mild winters, and hot, dry summers that produced one of the world’s hottest temperatures ever recorded at 129 degrees Fahrenheit. As a keen observer of ecosystems, he couldn’t help but ponder the differences.

Gruenzweig studies soil decomposition, among other things. The process of microbes breaking down dead plant material into nutrients that growing plants can use is a critical natural cycle in many ecosystems. In some conditions, soil can also capture and store carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping counteract the climate-warming effects of this common greenhouse gas.

In short, he spends a lot of time walking around looking at decaying plants. And one of the first things he noticed when he left Alaska for the semi-arid forests of Israel was that the pine needles on the forest floor seemed to decompose over the summer despite almost no exposure to moisture or intense sunlight, one or the other of which is typically thought to be required for the breakdown of organic matter.

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