Raising Crops In The Desert

  • Released Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Over the past three decades, Saudi Arabia has been drilling for a resource more precious than oil.

Over the past three decades, Saudi Arabia has been drilling for a resource more precious than oil.

Since the late 1980s, engineers and farmers in Saudi Arabia have tapped hidden reserves of water to grow crops in the desert. The underground water source was reached by drilling wells through sedimentary rock, as much as a kilometer beneath the desert sands. The plants that rise out of the desert are quenched by water that dates back to the last Ice Age. In a more temperate past about 20,000 years ago, the water filled aquifers that are now buried deep under the sand seas and limestone formations. Rainfall averages just 100 to 200 millimeters per year and usually does not recharge the underground aquifers, making the groundwater a non-renewable source. Although no one knows how much water lies beneath the desert—estimates range from 252 to 870 cubic kilometers—hydrologists believe it will only be economical to pump it for about 50 years. Watch the video to see the evolution of agricultural operations in Saudi Arabia's Wadi As-Sirhan Basin from 1987 to 2012, as seen by USGS-NASA Landsat satellites.

Satellite image acquired on February 24, 1991. The agricultural fields are about one kilometer across and use center-pivot irrigation.

Satellite image acquired on February 24, 1991. The agricultural fields are about one kilometer across and use center-pivot irrigation.

Satellite image acquired on March 12, 2000. The dark, rust-colored circles are dry vegetation or fallow fields.

Satellite image acquired on March 12, 2000. The dark, rust-colored circles are dry vegetation or fallow fields.

Satellite image acquired on January 17, 2012. The crops that are produced in the basin include grains, fruits and vegetables.

Satellite image acquired on January 17, 2012. The crops that are produced in the basin include grains, fruits and vegetables.

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Credits

Please give credit for this item to:
NASA's Earth Observatory
Video and images courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory

Release date

This page was originally published on Tuesday, May 19, 2015.
This page was last updated on Wednesday, May 3, 2023 at 1:49 PM EDT.