Can a desert tree fight global warming?

Salt cedars native to barren deserts might combat deforestation effects and serve as an agro-friendly biofuel.

A forest of salt cedars grown in the Aravah Desert in Israel by scientists for capturing carbon from the atomosphere. Tel Aviv University

Scientists at Tel Aviv University say they have a novel idea for combating the negative effects rainforest deforestation is having on the planet.

The group, led by Amram Eshel and Aviah Zilberstein, professors at TAU's Department of Molecular Biology and Ecology of Plants, have successfully grown a forest of salt cedars in the Aravah Desert using only a small amount of recycled sewage water and salt water left over from desalination plants.

The scientists used different varieties of the botanical genus of salt cedar trees called Tamarix, which is indigenous to old-world deserts. They're known for thriving in saline and alkali soil conditions. Some species of the trees grow up to 18 meters in height.

The salt cedars, which soak up carbon from the atmosphere and release oxygen, could be used as a way to mitigate the carbon effects of disappearing rainforests in places like Brazil and elsewhere.

Further analyses of data collected over the summer will determine which of the varieties capture the most carbon from the atmosphere and exactly how much carbon can be offset by planting an entire forest of the most successful species.

The group says their salt cedar forest could be replicated in many of the world's most arid lands where water is scarce--including areas where barren land is plentiful, such as the Sahara, parts of India, and central Asia.

And the trees may also have a second use. Salt cedars could also be used as biomass crops for making biofuel. Unlike many of today's biofuel crops, which are sometimes planted on fertile agricultural land that might otherwise be used for food crops, these trees could be planted on otherwise useless arid land.

The salt cedars initiative is a partnership project among researchers from TAU's Porter School of Environmental Science, the University of Tuscia in Viterbo, Italy, and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

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