December 28, 2014 1:00 pm JST
Understanding dunes and dust

Japanese university tackles the problems of arid climates

SEIJI DOI, Nikkei senior staff writer

The Arid Land Dome can simulate desert environments.

TOKYO -- A university in western Japan is seeking new ways to cope with arid climates by reproducing them on campus.

     When most Japanese think of Tottori Prefecture, they think of the area's famous sand dunes. So perhaps it is appropriate that the prefecture hosts the country's only research institute devoted to studying the drier, dustier parts of our planet: Tottori University's Arid Land Research Center. 

     The center is hard to miss, thanks to its large glass dome. The Arid Land Dome is equipped with its very own weather system, which means temperature and humidity can be adjusted to simulate the climate of any arid region on Earth.

     Next to the dome is a cylindrical building that houses a laboratory for experimenting with environmental rehabilitation techniques and observing the dust that often plagues Asia. On the top floor is a plant genetics lab. There is also a desert simulator that features one of Japan's most advanced systems for reproducing intense sunlight. A resource bank holds 229 species of desert plants.

Out of the sand

The ALRC's origins go back to the Sand Dune Research Institute established in 1958, as part of the university's agriculture department. The goal was to find ways to make troublesome land bloom. In the 1970s, the institute started taking its technologies overseas. Fast-forward to 1990, and the school formally adopted a broader perspective.

     "When we set up the ALRC in 1990, we made it our purpose to work comprehensively on problems related to arid land worldwide, such as poverty and disease," said Atsushi Tsunekawa, the center's director. He is quick to note that "the Tottori dunes, technically speaking, are not a desert, nor even arid land. But the area's sandy environment is a common environmental factor."

     At home and abroad, the ALRC has earned high marks for its methods of environmental restoration, agricultural production and preventing desertification.

     With its five research divisions, the center covers a lot of bases: climatology and water resources; biological production, which studies plant growth and genetic enhancement; afforestation and land conservation, including the reconstruction of damaged ecosystems and soil; socioeconomics; health and medicine. The first three carry on the agricultural research of older programs. The latter two are new additions that aim to address broader problems related to arid climates, besides food.

     The ALRC conducts about 70 research projects a year. It partners up on studies with other institutes and universities across Japan. It also offers its facilities to scientists from around the globe. And it seeks to attract foreign students from arid places in Africa, China and elsewhere; as of October, nine were enrolled.

Swirling problem

Alongside research on desert agriculture and ecosystem restoration, the center's Project Asian Dust is attracting a lot of attention from industry and academia. The project seeks to assess and control dust from degraded drylands in Northeast Asia. The five-year program, designated a special grand project by Japan's science ministry, began in fiscal 2011.

     Team members are looking into the mechanisms that generate Asian dust, its effects on the human body and measures to prevent it. The dust, which is potentially hazardous to health, sometimes reaches Japan. 

     The ALRC is one of the few institutes that has a presence where the dust begins. To better understand the phenomenon, it set up observation equipment in Tsogt-Ovoo in southern Mongolia.

     "We've proven that the dust is often generated in valleys and other lowlands," said associate professor and team leader Yasunori Kurosaki. "How it manifests varies depending on ground-surface environmental factors, like gravel, soil compaction and vegetation."

     The more we know about how dust is generated, the better equipped we will be to predict its trajectory and take countermeasures.

     Meanwhile, the ALRC increasingly receives inquiries from corporations that are interested in wind and solar power generation and large-scale agriculture in arid regions.

     "Arid lands are often associated with negative factors like poverty and low productivity, but they are vast and population growth rates [in such regions] are high," Tsunekawa said. "A growing number of companies see arid lands as a new, opportunity-rich frontier."

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