Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Drylands, Deserts, and Desertification Conference

On Sunday evening November 7th (my birthday), our bus load of participants drove down to the Sede Boquer campus of Ben Gurion University.  It was a 2 hour drive, punctuated by a stop in Be'er Sheva at a mall to buy dinner (not the best).

We arrived at about 8pm, well after dark.  After dropping eight participants at a hotel outside the campus which looked like a glorified motel complex (they used four locations for boarding the 600 participants from 65 countries), we arrived on campus at the field school housing (no better than the off campus options). 

We were greated by frantic 20-somethings, students and staff who were nearly as confused by what needed to happen as we were.  It took them about a half hour to track down all the room keys for the participants.  They could not answer basic questions about the campus, such as where/when breakfast was to occur the next morning, or whether there was internet access somewhere nearby (as there wasn't in the rooms).  Remember, these participants are experts in their fields from all over the world.  This was not their first conference, and I could tell they were more than a little frustrated by the lack of information and resources that enabled them to prepare for their speaking engagements in the following days. 

After about an hour and a half of trying to get participants settled, I was ushered onto the lap of one of the student coordinators in a tiny car full of oranges, pizzas, and more, with my suitcase in tow.  We drove to the one retail outlet in the area, a pizza joint, where we waited a half hour for them to bake 4 more pizzas.  Finally we drove to the student housing area where we met with the conference chairman.  He proceeded to provide the 20 or so student volunteers the structure for the upcoming day.  I asked about the possibility of getting a few basic resources for the participants, based on my observations earlier, including printed maps of the campus that they could use to get around.  I was brushed off in typical "don't bother me with the details" fashion, at which point I wondered if anyone was thinking about the details at all.

The student coordinator took me across the path to her apartment around 11pm (don't forget we had to be up at 6:30 to get the conference going the next day.)  Instead of finding the location where I was to stay, she insisted that I sleep at her place, in her bed (not with fresh sheets, mind you).  Although a very nice girl, she clearly hadn't the head for events management, appearing quite frantic, and insisting that she planned to stay up all night to everyone who would listen.  I gave up and tried to get some sleep in her bed, despite the chatter downstairs.  After 2 hours of restless sleep, I awoke to her coming in to bed herself, on our couch.  She said she found the key to my place, but at 2am I wasn't interested in searching for it in the dark.  Luckily though I was given another opportunity at 6am when her alarms started going off every 5 minutes for 20 straight minutes.  She was 5 feet from them, but didn't budge.  So I gave up, dressed, grabbed the key from the table, and went out to look for this illusive room. 

Rolling my little suitcase along behind me, I headed for the guard shack, hoping for help.  Unfortunately, they weren't even up at work yet.  While surveying my options in the intersection (north, east, south or west), I saw a guy a block down walking his dog.  I went up to him and tried my hebrew on for size, "eifo ha ___" and pointed to the sheet of paper with the info on it.  I was pleased to learn he knew exactly where to go, and he walked me there himself.  It turns out this room was in a small trailer, surrounded by other trailers, which I can only imagine became the cheapest, quickest way to house incoming research students on this tiny campus.  With my copy of a copy of a key that would sometimes take 5 minutes of attempts to unlock the door, I finally got in to discover a clean, never-before-used, mini apartment.  Perfect for a shower (and a nap later that day!)

The Conference opened with the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification, Luc Gnacadja.  I was excited for this section, hoping to learn a bit about the global strategies employed in this field.  My excitement ended in disappointment as his accent was so strong that he was hard to understand.  While there were translators for the participants listening with headphones, there weren't translators for the presenters, so the non-native English speaking presenters were really at a disadvantage trying to communicate their hypotheses and discoveries.

Despite the organizational challenges, there were some great presenters.  On Monday morning I attended the Public Health and Desertification session.  Professor Jonathan Patz of the Univ. of Wisconsin talked about the impact of the 3 degree Celcius increase in air temperative that the earth is currently undergoing in relation to public health.  Two examples that I had never considered really stuck with me.  Afterall, how could a slight temperature increase impact our health?  If anything, us northerners would be happy with a little less snow, right?  (Never mind the melting of the polar ice caps and rise in sea levels, but I digress).  Patz talked about the impact of 3 degrees on mosquitos.  Mosquitos are cold blooded, and thus take on the temperature of the air.  Any blood they suck will then also be air temperature.  When that blood carries malaria, it is now warmer which means it is less likely to remain dormant and quicker to spread.  A few degrees isn't a lot for a human, but it can be deadly via those pesky little mosquitos.  Second, with the temperature change we are seeing an increase in precipitation intensity (not volume).  This is leading to things like sewer overflows into places like Lake Michigan.  When tested, these waters have E. Coli and all kinds of little nasties, and guess what?  Our drinking water is being pulled right back out from these lakes.  Another very important point he made was that if you consider a more holistic view of the cost to convert to clean energy, it suddenly becomes a no-brainer.  Cities in the midwest U.S. showed a $4B healthcare cost savings by electing one day per week without driving (less polution, more exercise - kind of makes your head explode with the obvious simplicity of it).

In the Economic Development Strategies, Public Policy and Remote Sensing category, Alan Grainger from Leeds University talked about the World Forest Observatory, the first global monitoring system for the forest lands we have left.  Sounds crazy that we wouldn't have global monitoring systems by now (doesn't google monitor everything?) but it has been a real challenge create a publicly accessible data warehouse or wiki.  This one appears to be launching this year, however, and they hope it will lead to other global resources for gathering and monitoring data that spans the globe. 

In this same panel, I learned about two Israeli companies that have developed Concentrator Photovoltaics which significantly improve the efficiency of solar energy.  The companies are Zenith Solar and MST

During our Monday field trip, we visited a UNESCO world heritage site - the ancient Nabataean city of Avdat.  It was a major stop on the incense route from Asia for over 600 years B.C.  Continuing with the theme of the conference, we were shown their advanced agricultural techniques which allowed them security and prosperity with less than 8cm of rain per year, that hasn't existed in the area since.  While there, a military helicopter did several fly-bys and then hovered over us for a while (quite irritating when trying to listen to a speaker.)  This wasn't the last of the military operations overhead though.  There were planes rocketing overhead on a regular basis out there in the Negev.  Sadly, less than a week after the conference, a plane went down due to pilot error in practice, killing the 28 and 30 year old pilots.  It has been big news here.

The bottom picture here is the view from the field school in Sede Boqer.  I went out for a morning walk on Tuesday and ran into a family of mountain goats.  They were curious about me, but as long as I didn't get too close to the two young ones, the parents left me alone and continued along the edge of the cliff.   I didn't know what to expect in the "desert,"  but I was surprised by the large valleys.  I could never live in a place that dry, but it was definitely worth a visit!


  1. Oy vey! Sounds like you had quite the adventure. You're quite the crazy college kid, riding on laps in the car, crashing on someones dirty bed. Geez Louise! I've enjoyed keeping up with your blogs Alethea. And thanks for adding the "add to google reader" thing - I now have it set to alert me every time you post something on my phone, so don't spam me! :-)

  2. Thanks Sam. If you discover any blog features that you think I should add, definitely let me know. It is somewhat of a learning process. I'm also open to ideas for content, so if you'd like to hear more or less about something, let me know!

    And yes, I am definitely having an adventure! I look forward to sharing it with you.