Throughout the history of the West, human actions have often precipitated the wilderness – and their actions have turned against them. In the 1920s, the Colorado River Compact noticeably overused water still used today by several western states because water measurements were taken during a wet period.
More currently, operators of the massive Ivanpah solar power generation system in the Mojave Desert are spending an estimated $ 45 million on desert turtle mitigation after initial numbers of endangered animals were under- estimated before its construction.
A study published in the journal Ecological applications from the University of California, Davis and UC Santa Cruz warns of another potential shift in the desert as part of the race against climate change and towards the rapid development of renewable energy.
“Our study suggests that green energy and species conservation goals may conflict in California’s Mojave Desert, home to nearly 500 rare plant species as well as a rapidly expanding solar industry,” said the lead author Karen Tanner, who conducted the work as a Ph .RE. studying at UC Santa Cruz on a scholarship led by Rebecca R. Hernandez, assistant professor at UC Davis.
Tanner spent seven years teasing the demographics of two native desert flowers – the rare Barstow woolly sunflower (E. mohavense) and the Common Wallace woolly daisy (E. wallacei), comparing their performances both outdoors and under experimental solar panels. The authors wondered, how would desert-adapted plants react to signs that block light and rain? Would rare species react differently from common species to these changes?
These are not easy questions to find. At one point, Tanner glued tiny seeds to individual toothpicks to collect emergence data. At another point, she scoured the desert floor on her hands and knees to count the emerging seedlings of the rare sunflower – about the size of a mature thumbnail.
SUPER BLOOM SURPRISES
Such careful engagement is one reason why no previous study has modeled species responses to PV at the population level. It takes time and overcoming delicate logistical and mathematical challenges to model interactions of little-known species in the elusive desert. What is nowhere in sight one year can prosper the next.
This element of surprise is what makes “super flowers” so special and captivating. These bursts of wildflowers cover swathes of desert landscapes after particularly wet years and are considered essential for the long-term persistence of desert annual populations.
The study found that the effects of solar panels on plant response were strongly influenced by weather conditions and the physical characteristics of the landscape. During the 2017 super bloom, the panel shade negatively affected the population growth of the rare species, but had little effect on its common parent.
The study suggests that rare species may be more sensitive to the impacts of solar development than common species. It highlights the possibility that the effects of solar panels vary among species, as well as in space and time.
A MATTER OF TIME
The study provides an example of the importance of taking the time necessary to understand an ecosystem before irrevocably altering it.
“The wilderness – and many other biomes – do not respond to our timescales,” said Hernandez, co-director of the Wild Energy Initiative through UC Davis John Muir Institute. “If we are to understand them, we have to study them on uptime. Otherwise, it’s like taking a picture of a moving train and calling it a shipping container. Race to build renewable energy in places that have already been butchered. their biology makes sense – let’s not wait to put solar power on existing rooftops. But in natural environments, we have to listen and observe first. “
Research funding was provided by the California Energy Commission.
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Material provided by University of California – Davis. Original written by Kat Kerlin. Note: Content can be changed for style and length.