Termite mounds may help protect arid landscapes in Africa from turning into deserts as climate change exacerbates droughts.
New computer simulations of how stressed arid lands fall apart show that termite mounds and the lush green growth they foster can slow the slide into desert, Corina Tarnita of Princeton University and colleagues report in the Feb. 6 Science. These aren’t the termite species that bedevil human houses, but master architects that create vast underground tunnel networks topped by mounds. Nutrients collected and excreted by the colonies and water held by termite-tunneled soil nourishes plants, creating small islands of fertility.
While that’s good news for the landscape, it may make it more difficult to detect looming desertification crises via satellite, Tarnita notes. As rainfall dwindles, those termite islands stay green for a long time, forming a rough hexagonal lattice. This polka-dot vegetation pattern mimics the final stages of a landscape’s collapse.