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Originally published March 24 2015

How the world's largest desert sustains the most biodiverse ecosystem on Earth

by Jennifer Lilley

(NaturalNews) What does a dry and dusty desert have in common with a lush, green rainforest?

No, this isn't a setup for a joke that reveals a silly punch line, but rather a question that reinforces the interconnectedness of all things on this planet.

"Even tens of millions of years after South America separated from Africa, the two continents are still inextricably linked, like an older brother and a younger brother," says climate scientist Charlie Zender of the University of California, Irvine.

It's explained in a NASA Goddard Space Flight Center video that accompanied a article on the topic that the crucial link between the two continents comes from something many people might otherwise not readily consider: dust.

That's right, dust.

The video explains that every year, a NASA satellite has observed dust being lifted from the ground of the Sahara desert and transported about 3,000 miles across the Atlantic ocean. During this journey, much of the dust is collected in the largest rainforest on Earth, the Amazon basin. In fact, the NASA video explains that an estimated that 182 million tons of dust leaves Africa every year, 27 million tons of which finds its way to the Amazon rainforest.

Logically, as changes occur in the desert -- for example, one year that's drier than another -- an impact is felt in the Amazon. The video explains that dry conditions are ideal for dust transport while a wetter season decreases the amount of dust that gets to the rainforest.

Why dust from the Sahara desert is necessary for the Amazon rainforest

So why is it important that dust is transported to this region? The answer is simple, and one that explains why this process helps sustain the most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet.

According to Dr. Hongbin Hu, research scientist with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the dust "...contains phosphorus which is an important nutrient for plants. In the tropic region, the phosphorus is quite limited so it's important to estimate how much dust is transported..." The dust from the Sahara desert helps replenish nutrient losses in the Amazon rainforest that takes place when flooding and excessive surface runoff occurs.

In the journal Geophysical Research Letters, Hu and others expound on this subject, offering more insight into this incredible ecological relationship. The abstract hones in on a seven-year analysis of the dust as observed from a NASA satellite. It states that "This study provides a first multiyear satellite-based estimate of dust deposition into the Amazon Basin using three dimensional (3D) aerosol measurements over 2007-2013 from the Cloud-Aerosol Lidar with Orthogonal Polarization (CALIOP)," and ultimately concludes that ongoing studies are necessary. The abstract says that this relationship is one that demonstrates " important role of African dust in preventing phosphorus depletion on time scales of decades to centuries."

The importance of rainforests and of continuing to assess dust transport

Of course, it's no secret that protecting the world's rainforests is vital for a flourishing Earth. The deforestation that's taking place is a complete shame that is stripping away rainforests' natural medicines, their ability regulate climate and the fact that they provide a wide range of species a place to call home.

Hu says that in order to maintain this diverse and crucial ecosystem, continual assessment of the Sahara desert and Amazon rainforest link is necessary. "Using satellites to get a clear picture," he says in the NASA video, " important for understanding and eventually using computers to model that dust and where it goes now and in future climates and areas."


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