Large portions of global arid lands are under severe, increasing anthropogenic stress, their soils progressively degrading or already degraded. The interventional regeneration of the natural cover of these soils—photosynthetic communities known as biocrusts that armour them against erosion and fertilize them—is currently regarded as promising for dryland restoration and sustainability. Technologies for biocrust restoration developed during the past decades are, however, invariably of high effort and low capacity, constraining application to small spatial scales. We tested the notion that crustivoltaics, where solar power plants are used as ad hoc biocrusts nurseries, can break this scaling barrier. We show experimentally that solar plants indeed promote the formation of biocrust over neighbouring soils, doubling biocrust biomass and tripling biocrust cover, and that after biocrust harvesting, recovery is swift particularly if re-inoculated. Our results point to a mode of continuous dual operation that is not only effective and socioeconomically attractive but can also increase capacity by orders of magnitude to reach regional scales.
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Molecular sequence data for strain and microbial community analyses are freely available from NCBI under bioproject number PRJNA899057. Context databases used for phylogenetic placement are available at https://github.com/anagiraldo/Crustivoltaics. All other source data used in graphical displays or statistical analyses are provided as supplementary files. Weather records used for context are available at https://alert.fcd.maricopa.gov/alert/Google/v3/gmap.htmlSource data are provided with this paper.
No specific code was used in this research.
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This work was supported by the US National Science Foundation through the ERC’s Center for Bio-mediated and Bio-inspired Geotechnics (NSF grant no. ENG 1449501 - FGP). During this research J.B. was also supported by a scholarship from ASU’s graduate college. We thank E. Vivoni for access to climate records and the leadership of Clearway Energy for providing continued access to the solar plant and for encouragement of our project.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Heredia-Velásquez, A.M., Giraldo-Silva, A., Nelson, C. et al. Dual use of solar power plants as biocrust nurseries for large-scale arid soil restoration. Nat Sustain (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-023-01106-8