Climate Change Clutches Cactus

Alysha Selvarajah
3 min readAug 19, 2022
Credit(s): Thomas Verbruggen

One of the many consequences of climate change is desertification, where land becomes degraded to the point by which it could be considered a desert. So for years, scientists have turned to cactus as a potential solution to help mitigate the effects of climate change.

Why Cactus?

The cactus species have a high water efficiency allowing them to sustain themselves during prolonged periods of the dry season. Long ago, the Aztecs used cactus for this very reason, feeding their cattle as they battled dry weather conditions.

Since then, cactus has been used in many solutions. In 2019, a study was published detailing how a group of Indian scientists recommended cactus farming as an effective way to help India’s farmlands not fall victim to global warming. The study reported, "Integrating cactus into dryland farming systems and rangelands under changing climate can be one plausible solution to build resilient agro-ecosystems that provide food and fodder.”

However, the worsened landscapes in recent years may derail this solution.

What Is Happening?

Credit(s): Phoenix Home + Garden

The saguaro cactus, the largest cactus in the US may not survive the 21st century. By mid-century, up to 60% of cactus species could have an increased risk of extinction, according to the New York Times. This number does not even consider how cacti are currently one of the most endangered species due to habitat destruction and other human activity (e.g. poaching).

Fire also seems to be a concern to the population of saguaro cacti. In 2020, thousands of saguaros were killed due to the number of wildfires as a result of rising temperatures. Though heat allows cacti to grow, it does not benefit the plants that follow cacti. An invasive species of grass native to Africa that also thrives in hot and dry conditions, creates a flammable area around the cactus. This has caused the deaths of even more saguaros. The consensus here is that, even though cacti can survive the heat, the various plants that help sustain its development will not.

Some experts like Benjamin T. Wilder, director of the University of Arizona’s Desert Laboratory on Tumamoc Hill relent that “If we’re going to find any communities or ecosystems well suited to these climate stressors, the desert is going to be a pretty good one. I wouldn’t bet against a desert species.” The events that occurred in 2020 will seemingly continue if more is not done to reduce the effects of climate change. It seems that losing some cacti will be a part of our future, no matter how much they are viewed as a solution to climate change.

What Should I Takeaway From This?

There is no denying that climate change is an issue. Just years ago, implementing cacti was viewed as a solution. Now, the species might not survive for long.

“Species either adapt or they will go extinct,” says Arnóbio de Mendonça, a climate and biodiversity researcher at the National Institute for Space Research in Brazil. For cacti, in particular, the adaptation process is a slow one and is like no match for the rapid effects of climate change.

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