Part of a Series – Hanukkah 2020 – Nes Gadol Haya Po – Beer Sheva and the Negev

People tend to think of Israel as a desert wasteland. They aren’t entirely wrong – half of Israel is covered by the Negev, a landscape that Rashi, the medieval commentator, describes as “wiped clean of all good”. It is against this backdrop of popular thought, that we come across a modern “miracle”. Israel is one of the very few countries which had more forested land in the year 2000 than it did in 1900 – and the largest forest in Israel today is in the Negev!

Yatir forest in the northern Negev began as a project of the Jewish National Fund in 1966, when JNF visionary Yosef Weitz decided to use trees to attempt to push back the desert. Many thought that the project of planting pine trees in a place that only had around 250 mm of precipitation was doomed to failure. Not only has the forest thrived and grown, but since the year 2000, Yatir forest has been the object of research in foresting semi-arid lands around the world and examining how these forests contribute to the global Carbon cycle.

Lahav Forest

Studying carbon is one of the major fields in environmental research. If you’ve heard of “carbon emissions”, “carbon footprint”, or “greenhouse gases”, you’ve been introduced to facets of the Carbon cycle affected by modern life. In short, the carbon cycle is the process of moderating the use of carbon in its various forms. On land, Carbon Dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is absorbed by plants, combined with water and sunlight to bind the carbon and release oxygen (O2) – through photosynthesis. Those plants, and the carbon stored in them, are eaten by animals, who use the carbon to build proteins and exhale CO2 into the atmosphere (where it is absorbed by plants who bind it as carbon, etc.). CO2 is also the byproduct of burning hydrocarbons in fossil fuels, and the like. A combination of deforestation and the increase in using hydrocarbons has led to a net gain of carbon (and CO2) in the atmosphere and contributes to global warming. (Here’s a video on how the carbon cycle works.)

Last month, at the Desert, Drylands, and Desertification Conference of Ben Gurion University, researcher Dan Yakir from Weizmann Institute in Rechovot, Israel, put forward some of his research culled from the Yatir forest. Turns out that the potential to store carbon is higher in dry forests like Yatir because most of the carbon in these forests is stored underground (unlike in tropical conditions which store most of their carbon above ground in leaves and such). Yakir found that planting a Yatir-like forest in similar conditions in Africa and Australia can lead to higher rainfall and lower surface temperatures after 15 years.

Over the period of COVID when many people worldwide stayed home, the CO2 emissions in the world only decreased by 7%, not enough to slow the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, where it stays for years. Lessening emissions and limiting driving your car are not enough. A long term solution, including planting trees, especially in marginalized climates like the Negev, will be an important part of developing the land biosphere and slowing climate change.

Ben Gurion’s vision of making the desert bloom is coming true in Lahav forest – largest forest in Israel, in one of the driest areas – and contributes to world knowledge about the benefits of reforestation. This unlikely juxtaposition of developments is without a doubt a Nes, miracle, from Beer Sheva and the Negev.

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