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NSF-funded IUPUI study of non-rainfall water in Namib Desert reveals unexpected origins

For Immediate Release Mar 22, 2017
Lixin Wang kneels in Namib Desert to check a computer as a graduate student looks over his shoulder
Lixin Wang kneels in Namib Desert to check computer as Kudzai Farai Kaseke, a graduate student, observes.

INDIANAPOLIS – In a study conducted in one of the world’s oldest and most biologically diverse deserts, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis scientists explored the origins of water other than rainfall and are identifying multiple origins. The study, supported by the National Science Foundation, is the first to report that the ocean is not the sole source of life-sustaining fog and dew for numerous plants and animals living in the Namib Desert.

Understanding the sources of water is essential for developing ecological models of arid environments and is key to understanding how plants and animals sustain themselves and function under current or future climates.

Fog and – to a lesser degree – dew are crucial sources of moisture in this desert environment.

“Knowing exactly where the fog and dew come from will help us predict the availability of non-rainfall water in the future, both in the Namib and elsewhere,” said Lixin Wang, an ecohydrologist and assistant professor of earth sciences in the School of Science at IUPUI, who led the new study. “With this knowledge, we may be able to determine ways to harvest novel water sources for potential use in water-scarcity situations.”

Surprisingly, non-ocean-derived fog accounted for more than half of the total fog events in the Namib over the one-year period of the IUPUI study. Groundwater-derived fog was the most significant locally generated fog, serving as a source of more than a quarter of the desert’s fog. Soil water, which derives from rainfall and is below the surface but located higher than groundwater, was also found by the researchers to be an unexpected source of moisture.

Drylands, which in addition to deserts include parched but nondesert areas of the Great Plains and southwestern United States, cover approximately 40 percent of Earth’s land surface and are home to an estimated 2.5 billion people. With global warming, more areas in the United States and around the world are becoming drier and more desert-like.

“Dryland ecosystems have some of the lowest annual rainfall amounts recorded on Earth,” said Tom Torgersen, program officer in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Earth Sciences. “To survive, these ecosystems recycle water in the form of fog and dew. In the driest places on the planet, even seemingly minor components of the water cycle, such as fog and dew, become major and are critical to keeping the environment alive and functioning.”

Like other dryland ecosystems worldwide, the Namib is likely to experience changes in its hydrological cycle in response to global climate change. Given the abundance and importance of fog and dew in this desert, it provides an ideal location to study non-rainfall water.

The Namib, which borders the Atlantic Ocean for 1,243 miles with temperatures ranging from below 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius) to 140 degrees Fahrenheit (60 degrees Celsius), is almost completely devoid of surface water. Many parts of the Namib receive virtually no rain. Some years are rainless; in other years, there may be only an inch or two of rain, although some areas may receive as many as four inches. But the Namib does support a wide variety of specially adapted organisms, such as a fog-harvesting beetle. Most of the Namib’s plants and animals are believed to obtain moisture from fog or dew during rainless periods to be able to survive.

Fog consists of tiny droplets of water suspended in air, and dew consists of tiny droplets that form on the surface of plants, soil and other objects on the ground.

Wang’s research focuses on the intersection of hydrology, ecology and isotope geochemistry. He used analysis of stable isotopes in water – the same element with different neutron numbers in the nuclei such as of hydrogen and oxygen – to trace the origins of non-rainfall water. In future research, he plans to explore the mechanisms by which groundwater and soil water become fog and dew. The long-term goal is to expand this ecohydrology research beyond the Namib to a global scale.

“Non-rainfall Water Origins and Formation Mechanisms” is published online in Science Advances, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Study authors, along with Wang, are Kudzai Farai Kaseke and Mary K. Seely. Kaseke is an IUPUI doctoral student in Wang’s group who accompanied Wang on the field research for the study and is the first author of this publication. Seely is a desert ecologist and the former director of the Gobabeb Research and Training Center in Namibia who has studied the Namib for more than half a century.

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