The Climate Mechanisms of World Deserts and Limitations in Allan Savory’s thesis.

Guest post by Dr. Tim Ball – a response to this WUWT post on Allan Savory

Dr Allan Savory proposes stopping desertification and controlling climate change. His focus is a large natural vegetation area called grasslands. His idea of raising cattle to maintain grasslands is founded on the grazing and fertilizing cycle provided by herbivores. Bermuda Grass is an example of a grassland plant species that thrives on being constantly cropped. It grows thick and dense the more it is cut, making it ideal for golf greens. Savory’s ideas all sound attractive and ‘green’ and not without some merit, but are riddled with problems. It is not clear, indeed unlikely, that his proposals would measurably alter natural climate change.

Watching his presentation I imagined all the ‘environmentalists’ recoiling at his suggestions. It is not long since radical environmentalists like Jeremy Rifkin were blaming cattle for most of the evils of western society in his 1992 book, Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture. True, Savory showed sheep, but he should also have introduced the idea of restocking some areas with natural herds, such as bison in North America. These areas would become world funded preservation areas of natural species as George Perkins Marsh proposed in his 1864 book Man and Nature. Marsh was also among the first in modern times to idenitfy the relationship between removal of vegetation and desertification.

The major conflict is between domesticated and wild herbivores and the production of foodstuffs. This included growing grains to feed the cattle or overgrazing. Presumably, Savory is suggesting domesticated animals to also expand the food supply. The problem is expansion of the food supply usually creates an increase in the human population, which Savory says is at the heart of the world’s problems.

Savory’s Assumptions

He makes three major assumptions, all arguable. First is the claim the world is overpopulated. It is not! People, apparently including Savory, believe it is because of the neo-Malthusian claim underlying the alarmism of the Club of Rome in the 1970s. Claims of overpopulation primarily came from Paul Ehrlich’s work, but his predictions were so inaccurate it’s a wonder he retains any credibility. The reason the ideas remain is probably because supporters of his ideas are in positions of power today. For example, Ehrlich’s co-author of a truly frightening book Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment is President Obama’s Science Tsar, John Holdren. In addition, graduates of 1979s and 1980s environmental studies programs are now running the bureaucracies using those ideas.

The second error is his identification of land ‘suffering’ from desertification. Savory identifies five regions on a world map (Figure 1). He is using the term desertification as it evolved back in the 1970s, that is as an environmental problem caused by humans. The problem is almost all the regions he identifies are natural climatic regions of desert and grasslands. He says there is “no other cause” than humans for desertification, which is only true because of his definition. In a 2005 work, “The causes and progression of desertification,” Geist identified more than 100 definitions. Any region that loses vegetation becomes a desert, which happens all the time as climate changes. If you don’t know how much change is due to natural causes you can’t determine the human portion. It is the same as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) examining only human causes of climate change without knowing how much it changes naturally.

The third error he makes, is to assume climate change is new and caused by humans. It isn’t. The amount of change is well within natural variability, but the IPCC and its proponents persistently work to prove it is outside and therfore unnatural. Savory is apparently vulnerable to the “human cause” claim because he blames humans for desertification.

Basic Arid Zone Pattern

The trouble is it appears Savory lacks some basic understandings including;

• how deserts are formed and change with climate change,

• how or why the major hot deserts are generally located within 15 to 35° of latitude each side of the Equator and,

• how grasslands are a transitional area of slightly higher precipitation that surround the deserts and lie between the deserts and the forests. Grassland names differ from Steppe in Russia; Great Plains in the US and their northern extension the Prairies in Canada; Llanos in northern South America; Pampas in southern South America; to Savanna and Veldt in Africa.


Figure 1: Areas of desertificcation identified by Allan Savory

Source: Screen Capture from his presentation

The Sahel is just such a transitional region between the rainforest on the coast of west Africa and the true desert of the Sahara. Alarmist stories appeared about the expanding Sahara desert associated with the cyclical Sahelian drought that visited the region between 1968 and 1974. Famine accompanied the drought and overgrazing was blamed. It, and another drought in 1984-85, launched the environmental career of Bob Geldof.

A similar desertification situation was identified in the Thar desert on the Indian-Pakistan border in the 1970s, with claims the area wasn’t totally ‘natural’ but created by overgrazing, especially by the ubiquitous goat. University of Wisconsin climatologist Reid Bryson theorized that removal of vegetation cover increased surface temperatures, which caused increase convection and advection (wind). Resulting soil erosion and winds carried dust to altitude. Here it absorbed sunlight directly, raising upper air temperatures while reducing surface heating. Warm air over cold is an inversion, a very stable situation that prevents cloud formation, thus perpetuating the aridity. As I recall, much money was spent on bringing water into the region to plant grasses and stabilize the surface to break the cycle. The grass promoted was Marram, a well known sand dune stabilizer.

World Hot Deserts and Grasslands

It is impossible to get even crude estimates of the percentage of land surface that is grassland or desert. Land is 149 million km2 of the Earth’s total surface and hot deserts make-up an estimated 15 to 30 percent (Figure 2). The Sahara provides a scale because it is 9.1 million km2, almost identical to the land area of the US. The hot deserts of the world in order (millions of km2) are;

Sahara – 9.1

Central Asia – 4.5

Australian – 3.4

North American – 1.3

Patagonian – 0.7

Indian – 0.6

Kalahari – Namib 0.57

Atacama – 0.36

The word ‘hot’ is in bold because, as Koppen (Figures 4 and 5) recognized in his climate classification system, there are vast cold deserts. The North and South poles are among the driest places on Earth.


Figure 2. Major hot deserts generally straddling the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.

In his system, Koppen identified “B” climates primarily as those with insufficient ‘effective’ precipitation to support trees (BS for Steppe climate) then grass (BW desert climate). He further divided BW climates into BWh (coldest month average above 0°C) and BWk (at least one month average below 0°C). When doing a Koppen classification you begin by eliminating the B climates. Savory lumps them together as shown in Figure 1.

Estimates for grassland are more variable than for deserts varying from 15 to 40 percent of the land surface, excluding Antarctica and Greenland. Savory showed, unknowingly, why defining grasslands is so difficult. He showed clumps of grass with bare ground in between, implying they were examples of desertification. The problem is such conditions are natural and exist over very large areas with grasses known as tussock.

The sun is directly overhead the equator twice a year and is never more than approximately 23.5° from the vertical. This results in maximum heat energy and therefore high year round temperatures. It creates what was known as the “heat equator”, which, because of land water differences is not coincident with the actual Equator. Belem on the Amazon in the interior of Brazil has a range of 1.6°C from the warmest to the coolest month.

High temperatures result in high evaporation and rising warm air. The vertical air currents mean very little horizontal surface wind, a problem in sailing days. English sailing ships recorded the conditions and from their records George Hadley, in 1753, figured out his circulation cell (Figure 3). Clouds develop daily and result in heavy rainfall almost daily. Duitenzorg, Java, averages 322 days a year with thunderstorms.

The warm air rises to the tropopause where it is now cold, dense and dry. Deflected away from the Equator it descends. As it descends increasing pressure creates adiabatic warming. By the time it reaches the surface it is hot and dry. The amount of moisture is the same but chances of condensation and cloud formation is virtually zero. Average relative humidity for the Sahara is approximately 19%. Water vapour is the most important greenhouse gas and low levels in desert region mean the ground and air heat and cool very rapidly. Cloud cover in the Sahara varies from about 10% in winter to 4% in summer.

The highest shade temperatures in the world occur such as 58°C in Libya and 56.7°C in Death Valley, California. At In-Salah, Algeria, the temperature dropped from an afternoon high of 52.2°C to an overnight low of –3.3°C, a range of 55.5°C in about 12 hours. These conditions mean the air holds less water vapour, but the air temperature drops well below the dew point temeprature thus creating condensation.


Figure 3. Hadley Cell circulation has air rising at the equator and descending between 15 and 30° latitude. A similar cell exists for the Southern Hemisphere.

Heated air at the equator creates low pressure, the Equatorial Low, while descending air creates high pressure in the subtropics, the Subtropical Highs.

The pattern of high rainfall at the Equator and deserts in the Low Latitudes is disturbed by the land/water distribution and influence of ocean currents. The greatest disturbance occurs in eastern Africa and Asia so the desert zone extends through Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and western China. Low latitude landmass in the southern hemisphere is restricted but includes southern Africa, Australia and South America. In South America the Andes Mountains block the extension of the deserts across the entire continent. However, where they exist on the coast they are among the driest on earth.

Savory refers to the rock paintings of herd animals in the central Sahara. They occur there because of climate change when increased rainfall supported grasslands. During the last Ice Age the Polar climate zones expanded pushing the mid latitude temperate climates toward the Equator. Traditional climate referred to the wetter periods in the desert zones that were coincident with Glacials as Pluvials. When the Earth warmed to Interglacials, as now, the desert regions experience Interpluvials.

Swings between Pluvial and Interpluvial are macro climate changes, however smaller changes are occurring all the time. As a result, the pattern of climates shown in Figures 4 and 5 are averages and constantly changing.


Figure 4: Koppen classification The Americas.


Figure 5: Koppen classification Africa, Eurasia and Australia

The Sahel is shown as BSh or hot grassland right across Africa on the south side of the Sahara (BWh). In addition to the longer term climate changes, cyclical changes in precipitation cause drought cycles such as the one from 1968 to 1974. Australia is another large classic region of desert (BWh) surrounded by semi-arid grassland (BSh).

Importance of Condensation

Savory draws attention to the potential of condensation moisture in the semi arid areas. This is not new, as people for centuries have gathered condensation moisture. I grew up near the dry chalk lanscape of Salisbury Plain and learned early about “dew ponds”. Gilbert White, a renowned 18th century English naturalist, described the ecology around Selbourne. He described a dew pond near the village as “…only 3 feet deep and 30 feet in diameter, that contained some 15,000 gallons of water which supplied 300 sheep and cattle every day without fail.”

In many dry regions people put xerophytic plants close to large rocks, which provide sufficient overnight condensation to maintain the plant. On a larger scale, ancient Greeks built large pyramids of rock from which condensation trickled down to a network of clay collection pipes. Called air wells, they are a well known technique. There were 13 such pyramids up to 12 meters high near the ancient Greek city of Theodosia on the Black Sea.

Savory is correct, condensation is the forgotten moisture, as I described a few years ago and more recently repeated here. The issue was the difference between official predictions of poor yields and the actual average or better yields on the Canadian Prairies. In the late summer of that 1980s year, daytime temperatures were high, generally 27-28°C, which meant it could hold lots of moisture. At night, temperatures dropped to record lows around 3-5°C and moisture deposition was heavy. In a three-week period this yields upward of 50 mm of precipitation equivalent. Farmers know that amount of moisture can be critical to “fill out” a crop. It has several advantages over normal precipitation. It occurs at night when heat stress on the plant is reduced. Evaporation is reduced. Distribution is more even and widely distributed than rainfall. Unfortunately, it is not moisture counted in the weather statistics used by all the experts. Ironically, it’s moisture farmers know about because, until it evaporates, it can delay harvesting.”

Savory’s method can take advantage of the moisture, but it will only produce grasses in the natural grassland regions he defines. To change true desert (BWh) to grassland requires much larger volumes of water than condensation provides.

It is not clear how his proposal will stop climate change. Presumably, he assumes changing the surface will change the albedo, which will change the energy balance. The problem is there is not much difference in albedo between desert, which ranges from 15 to 45, and grassy fields with ranges10 to 30. The desert range is wide because deserts are only partially sand dunes. The dune areas known as Erg are higher albedo, but are a small percentage of a desert. The much larger, lower albedo, area is the hamada or rock strewn areas that are 70 percent of the Sahara.

Savory’s comment about the importance of microclimates is more critical than he realizes. Most vegetation, and certainly the grasses, grow in the 1.25 m below the Stevenson Screen, the official weather station. The climate below that level is markedly different, as Geiger identified in his marvelous 1950 book, The Climate Near the Ground. Any attempt at planning or changing conditions in this portion of the Biosphere requires far more information than is currently available.

Change is the norm. Climate change is normal and current changes are well within natural variability. Allan Savory’s proposal to stabilize grassland areas has some merit, but requires much more understanding and context, especially about climate patterns and climate change mechanisms. Of course, as the world cools in the next few decades the colder climate zone will expand and the desert zone will shrink naturally. The grasslands will benefit from cooler wetter conditions as the natural cycles continue.


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Willis Eschenbach

Tim, a very well-thought-out and interesting discussion of the issues.
I could only add that the GAEZ study has actually quantified the amount of grassland, as well as the area of hot and cold deserts.

Next, I agree with you that while changes in animal husbandry can help revegetate some areas, it’s only at the margins. You won’t change Saharan barchan dunes into pastures just by adding cows …
Having seen the destruction done by goats, on the other hand, I can testify that the reverse is true. You can change a forest into a desert …
Next, I greatly appreciated your reference to my personal climate bible, Geiger’s “The Climate Near The Ground”. Wonderful book from a time when people took measurements instead of using computer model estimates …
I also appreciated the nuance in your conclusion, viz:

Allan Savory’s proposal to stabilize grassland areas has some merit, but requires much more understanding and context, especially about climate patterns and climate change mechanisms.

Can’t say fairer than that …

A much too polite destruction of the obvious myth.
Thanks for a voice of reason, anyway.

The way I read it, Allan Savory was more interested in returning what had been taken out, or perhpas in not taking out in the first place. Such as culling 40,000 elephants, then wondering why the area got poorer. Anywhere where people have tried to take charge of the land and “manage” it by removing what governments or scientists regarded at the time as “pests” generally backfires.
He has shown good results over more than a decade, so there’s plenty of merit. It’s certainly far better than what we currently have, which is people blaming everything on global warming.
As for “altering climate change” – natural or not, I didn’t get that it was about that at all. To me it was about letting desertification heal naturally. It was about greening the world by letting nature do its thing, and stopping unnatural desertification that is caused through humans thinking they can “control” an area by purging it of unwanted fauna. Not about climate. Not about true deserts. Not about change.
Perhaps it was a “Hey, if you think desertification is about climate change, it’s not, look at this” kind of message. That was my take on it, that he was trying to appeal to people who blamed CO2 or global warming, whatever it’s called this week.
People try to control the environment. I sure understand that when it comes to cities and farmland and our own slice of heaven in the bush (forest – sorry, I’m Australian), but when it comes to playing God over National Forests or Parks, or any sort of wilderness ecosystem, we always stuff up. Removing fauna in order to “protect” the land is one such stuff up that results in desertification in certain areas. Putting the the fauna back again solves the problem and we get better crops and lots of meat to eat. That’s what I got out of it. Win, win, win. 🙂
Just my two cents worth.

Ben D.

Great post. thank you.


Savory also fails to consider how ecosystems build carrying capacity / standing crop to some optimum for any particular set of conditions and that carrying capacity is anything but stable in a changing environment. This is why we have natural boom and bust population cycles in temperate and edge “zones” but generally do not find comparable behaviors in “more stable” tropical rain forests.

Geoff C

Savory’s practices (not so much theories) work well in marginal grassland.
Someone should tell the judges of all the ‘farmer of the year’ awards that Science disagrees with their choices: it has proved many times that grazing management is no better than continuous or set stocking. Nearly every time a grazier has won or been runner up in annual awards since 2007 they have nominated cell or rotational grazing management as a centerpiece of their farm plan. Yet science has been unable to confirm that they are making a difference to the health of their pastures, their animals and their landscapes.
End Quote
Read the rest at


“Traditional climate referred to the wetter periods in the desert zones that were coincident with Glacials as Pluvials. When the Earth warmed to Interglacials, as now, the desert regions experience Interpluvials.”
This is completely wrong and an obsolete terminology. Actually deserts grow during glaciations and shrink during interglacials. During the previous (warmer) interglacial Sahara virtually disappeared while during the last glaciation it almost reached to the Guinea Gulf. That was also when e. g. the Nebraska Sandhills was an actual desert.


I took the following main point away from Savory’s talk:
– In places where rainfall is sufficient to have grasslands where we currently have desert-like conditions, we can undo this process by using livestock to mimic the times when animal herds roamed wild.
So while I appreciate that Dr. Ball believes Savory’s claims about the larger picture may be overstated (any that’s no surprise in the climate arena at all), using Savory’s methods to bring back grasslands where they can be supported is better than letting the deserts grow. I can’t see how desert is ever better than grassland in places where rain falls in sufficient quantity for grasslands.
I think also unvoiced in Savory’s presentation is something that was barely mentioned – “no till” techniques to work land for food. I assumed this includes raising livestock on land. We greatly underappreciate the amount of CO2 tilling the soil adds to the air, so being that Savory is a guy that wants to reduce CO2 emissions, it seemed to me he saw this a big benefit to expanding the lands that can be used to raise livestock.


thanx for the critique. adds to the debate. no-one has all the solutions:
25 March: SMH: Bosch dumps solar business as losses mount
German engineering company Bosch said it is abandoning its solar energy business, because there is no way to make it economically viable amid overcapacity and huge price pressure in the industry.
The solar power industry has been hit by falling subsidies, weaker sales and increasingly stiff price competition, especially from Chinese manufacturers. Robert Bosch GmbH’s move, announced at the end of last week, came after German industrial conglomerate Siemens announced last October that it would give up its loss-taking solar business.
Bosch said that it will stop making products such as solar cells, wafers and modules at the beginning of next year. It will sell a plant in Venissieux, France, and is abandoning a plan to build a new plant in Malaysia.
The solar energy division, which employs about 3,000 people, lost around €1-billion ($1.25 billion) last year…

Why is the Huffington Post posting and article on Solar activity?
Are they all of a sudden becoming aware?
Sun’s Activity To Peak With ‘Solar Maximum’ In 2013, Scientists Say


Animal urine, feces and crushing all kill bermudagrass. It freezes off in the winter for several months and allows the growth of random weeds and it doesn’t have low moisture survival characteristics. The reason is survives in the warm tropics is because it ALWAYS has a source of moisture and can survive off of low saline mist.
Potatoes are a better option.

Gail Combs

I agree with Willis. You can only change the ‘deserts’ around the margins and over grazing can be very destructive.
As far as Bermuda Grass goes I had a bit of experience with Common Bermuda (viable seed) during the 2007 drought in NC. Yes my Bermuda and native grass pastures survived the drought while the cow pasture of Kentucky 31 Fescue across the street died deader than a door nail and had to be replanted. However the grass did not GROW. Bermuda survives drought by going dormant.
May 2007 was very dry, 2.07 inches vs the normal May rainfall of 4.42 inches.

The drought intensified quickly in June 2007 when D2 or Severe Drought was introduced USDM – June 5) into far northwest North Carolina across portions of Ashe and Watauga counties. Although the drought was confined to this extreme southwest corner of the Blacksburg HSA through much of mid-summer it expanded considerably during the very dry August of 2007. That month HSA average rainfall was only 1.63 inches with many stations recording less than 1 inch of rainfall. To make matters worse August 2007 was one of the hottest months ever recorded in this region…

In my area what thunderstorms there were that summer missed us that year. It was very frustrating watching a storm heading straight for my farm and either head north as it came close or disappear altogether.
Despite that we had cooler weather and a lot more rain that year than you get in a desert or even Texas. You are just not going to get growth without rain. That is why an Easterner figures one cowl per two acres and Texans figure one cow per couple of square miles.

All the major deserts are a result of consistent climatic patterns, the more consistent the less variation. That’s why the Sahara, despite its size is more variable than the Atacama.
Apart from the climate, only techtonic shifts cause minor deserts, a good example being the Okavango river which formerly fed the Makgadikgadi pan.
To say that all previous civilizations ended because of climate change should have started the alarm bells ringing. Savory makes leaps of logic throughout his presentation, I like that he thinks out of the box, but wow – too much.

Lewis P Buckingham

Its a good idea to remove feral pests in marginal grazing land dotted with small bushes.
On one place I worked in the Western division of NSW Australia, a plague of rabbits ringbarked all the bushes that provided cover for stock and native animals and the area reverted to grassland and dust bowl in drought under grazing pressure of cattle and sheep.
Where scientists and governments urge control of rabbits, camels and off the subject, feral cats, I’m all in favour.


The problem is expansion of the food supply usually creates an increase in the human population, which Savory says is at the heart of the world’s problems.

Did I read this right? To paraphrase, is Dr Ball saying that the problem with Savory’s solution is that less people die of starvation?

I have a 1969 book on deserts titled ‘The Great Deserts’ that I have had since a child that sparked a lifetime interest in deserts. Here is a quote from the book :
– – –
But a word of warning comes from the great American, Starker Leopold, who has observed:
“Many of the deep wells being drilled today in deserts around the world are tapping water than can never be replaced. In parts of Baja California, and Sonora, short-term farming projects are being undertaken in the most unpromising creosote-bush desert, based on wells with a probable life span of only ten to fifteen years.”
– – –
So how did that go? 1979 to 1984 was his prediction for the wells life span.

Elrich was totally wrong but there could be a point of overpopulation. I believe I’ve heard that 60% of the photosynthesis on earth goes to humans eventually. I doubt extremely that we are anywhere near a truly serious point of overpopulation and the same false assumptions about the technologies of today and the populations of tomorrow are certainly being made but being wrong in the 70’s is not a guarantee of being wrong today. (Unless you’re worried about catastrophic human caused climate shifts of course…)
As well, in terms of hurting our own long term situation we may be nowhere in sight of overpopulation but it does seem like we are well into the territory of pushing out other species at a fair rate. That can be considered a worthy concern, for various reasons, if not one requiring draconian measures.

This is an interesting discussion. Essentially, it comes down to whether the Hadley circulation necessarily causes true desert at one end, or there could just as well (in the same phase of, let’s say, an interglacial) be grassland. The ease at which grassland can flip to desert and vice versa (and the big seasonal changes in grassland every year) suggest that it may not be just top-down “global circulation” controlled how much actually grows there, but also bottom-up “vegetation, grazing/predation, microclimate” controlled as Savory claims. You can think that this is only relevant to desert margins, but that is just where we see the change happen; it does not mean that there should be real desert at all (since margins can shift). So where is the limit?


Excellent as Usual Dr Ball.
I do take issue with one statement at the beginning though:- More food means more humans. Not strictly true. Africa has a growing population due to a very high birth rate, though also a high child mortality rate, and poor food supply. The West has surplus food available and a small, stable birth rate. African birth rate is tied to child mortality rate, women want at least a couple of children to survive to adulthood, So to increase development, health care, food availability etc. to reduce child mortality rate will decrease the birth rate and population will level off.


Savory is a mishmash of other people’s ideas, outright misrepresentation, a few good thoughts and CO2 nonsense. As Tim points out, he fudges the distinction, and the borders, between shifting marginal grasslands and true desert.
‘Reclaiming the desert’ is one of those cries that appeals to very primitive instincts. Many current deserts were once fertile or under water.
There is plenty of arable land for growing crops and raising livestock in the current configuration. While extending the margins a bit or reversing the results of overgrazing is probably worth doing, it is a distraction from the causes of poverty in parts of Africa and Asia. Political instability and corruption, do-gooding NGOs who want them to stay ‘close to Nature’ and lack of basic infrastructure have a lot more to do with it.
Thanks, Tim. The would-be Messiahs like Savory have never contributed anything to the massive changes that have lifted hundreds of millions out of subsistence poverty in the last 30 years. They are marginal operators selling snake-oil.

“It is not clear how his proposal will stop climate change. Presumably, he assumes changing the surface will change the albedo, which will change the energy balance.”
The soil of graslands bind a lot of carbon and thus remove CO2 from the atmosphere. If I understand the video in the previous post right, that is the main reason why Savory thinks that turning desert into graslands will help with climate change.

J Broadbent

I loved John Daly’s book “Still waiting for Greenhouse” where he politely and gently reasoned why the Hadley Cells caused desertification at certain latitudes. In my opinion, John was a gentleman and a wise man of our tribe. Savory on the other hand worried me as my experience suggests the best of the con-men generally lead with a confession of guilt. 40,000 elephants is by any measure a heavy cross for one man to bear!

John Niclasen

1. If people keep doing the wrong things, don’t understand, and cause desertification by killing natural herds and not making up for it making the Earth suffer, then yes, the world is overpopulated.
2. The regions, where we see desertification, is at the edges of the natural deserts. The amount of natural deserts is more or less in balance, because the global climate hasn’t changed much the last couple thousands years (compared to earlier changes). So yes, I’ll say, Savory is more or less correct, when he claims, there is no other cause than human for the desertification, we’re experiencing now. “Desertification” means going from not being a desert into becoming a desert. Forget the deserts, that are already there from nature. That’s not what Savory is talking about, as I understand him.
3. A savanna has savanna climate. A desert has desert climate. Maybe Savory by “changing climate” means changes in the local climate, when grasslands become deserts? Have you thought about that? We’re mostly used today to think about climate change as global climate change. Think locally, when trying to understand Savory.
About deserts and the explanation giving by Tim Ball here, it is not the full picture! Sahara was formed some 3 million years ago. See work by Peter B. deMenocal:
The Hadley Cell is part of the explanation, but not the full.
You need to take a big step back to understand deserts. Like a 100 million year step back. Back then there were no deserts (the oldest desert is the Namib desert formed 80 mio years ago or so). And the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was a lot higher than today. It’s not water, that is the primary problem, it is the amount of carbon. Life is based on carbon.
Hint: Try calculate the mass of all the carbon bound in life on Earth. Then calculate the mass of carbon bound in CO2 in the atmosphere and compare.
Tim Ball, you understand many things, and I find your texts and talks very interesting, but you’re not quite right on this one.

Stephen Wilde

“During the last Ice Age the Polar climate zones expanded pushing the mid latitude temperate climates toward the Equator. ”
That expansion and contraction of the Polar climate zones happens to a lesser degree all the time even during Interglacials as a response to changes in the mix of particles and wavelengths from the sun and that mix varies with the level of solar activity.
The effects are heavily modulated by the thermal inertia of the oceans and all significant climate change is a consequence of that interplay between sun and oceans.
Any effect from GHGs being vanishingly small.
What everone seems to have missed is that the latitudinal shifting is a negative system response which always adjusts the speed of the energy flow through the system so that top of atmosphere radiative balance is maintained over time.
Deserts are natural, inevitable and constantly moving to and fro between equator and poles.


One of the things I enjoy about this website is the ability of people with different views being able to post.
And the way people discuss said posts in a (mostly) rational manner.
I had the good fortune in my high school days to have a physics teacher who had a sound grasp of the scientific method, and its’ application.
“If it is colourful , it’s chemistry. ”
“If it moves , it is biology. ”
“And if it doesn’t work , it’s physics.”
We all had a good laugh, but it was true in that our understanding was limited at best, and science was a tool , when properly used, to increase that understanding.
The other thing he taught us was “Never assume I am telling you the truth. Anything I say might be wrong. Always check and recheck , then check it again. ”
Following that principle in all things can still lead to mistakes, but the solution is the same.
Check the information. Correct it if it is wrong. Check it again.
Something else I have long since learned.
Never be afraid to admit when you do make mistakes. Once you admit there was an error, you are already half way to fixing it. This is something I have tried to pass on, and it makes life so much easier on everyone. Everyone makes mistakes, it is what you do about them that is important.


re Savory: “He has shown good results over more than a decade, so there’s plenty of merit. It’s certainly far better than what we currently have, which is people blaming everything on global warming.”
I appreciate Tim Balls knowledgeable article but I think it is unnecessarily dismissive of Savory.
The transformations he has achieved (as shown in his presentation) are little short of miraculous. What he is proposing is to stop ill-informed conservation practices and to introduce animal husbandry that recover land that is degrading unnecessarily.
His talk did include global warmism, but not because he was a fan or a proponent, I think it is just part of general culture and many have been fooled by the bullshine of “concensus” propaganda.
I don’t think he’s going to be growing maize on the rocks in the Sahara but he can produce both fertile growth and meat on massive areas that are currently dead.
Of course ecologists will hate anyone that produces a positive effect. They’d rather go on shooting elephants, depossessing local tribes in the name of ecology and blaming the results on CO2.
They actually WANT the destruction of climate until we are all down on our knees begging them to show us the light and promising to do whatever they say.

Gail Combs

Geoff C says:
March 25, 2013 at 1:04 am
Savory’s practices (not so much theories) work well in marginal grassland.
Someone should tell the judges of all the ‘farmer of the year’ awards that Science disagrees with their choices: it has proved many times that grazing management is no better than continuous or set stocking. Nearly every time a grazier has won or been runner up in annual awards since 2007 they have nominated cell or rotational grazing management as a centerpiece of their farm plan. Yet science has been unable to confirm that they are making a difference to the health of their pastures, their animals and their landscapes…..
As someone who practices grazing management I call Bull Patties on that statement. If you want to see a pasture degradate FAST just put horse on it.
After a few years you have the “rough’ the part of the pasture full of manure, high grass and weeds, the “lawn” eaten close to the ground and bare spots were the horses stand and stomp or run along the fence line. Even weeds won’t grow in those spots. As the pasture ages the horses, pooping on the edges of the rough cause the rough to expand until you have nothing but bare spots and rank weeds.
I use strip paddocks (30 ft X 300 ft) and rotate every few days also rotating between three species. My paddocks are clipped, dragged and rested. Instead of the nominal 500 lbs per acre I have over 1300 lb/ac. My farm was a worn out tobacco farm with a soil analysis of 98% inorganic mineral aka clay. I now have topsoil. My pastures are volunteer native grasses so I am not using any “improved” grass to account for my success. I lime and use animal manure for fertilizer. I do occasionally fertilize with commercial fertilizer when I over seed in the winter with Abruzzi Rye. That is about once ever three to five years.
One other mention. By worming and sequestering my animals for 72 hours in stalls I have reduced my worm burden to just about zip. This means my equines now get NO GRAIN even in the winter. Worm management is THE big reason for rotating paddocks BTW.
Cows are not as hard on pastures and have less problems with worms so pasture management is not as critical. Goats are very sensitive to worms even more so than horses or sheep. Sheep are more susceptible to internal parasites than most other types of farm livestock… and Haemonchus Contortus can kill off several animals in a week if you have a heavily infested pasture and warm wet weather while coccidiosis will kill your lambs and kids.
The key to Haemonchus is the life cycle. The life cycle (egg to mature adult) is 17 to 21 days. THAT IS WHY YOU ROTATE!

Gail Combs

Another comment on pasture rotation.
You do not want your grass to be any shorter than 2 to 3 inches in height especially in the summer. You need the leaf surface for photosynthesis to promote a fast recovery and to shade the ground. The pasture should be held at a height of between 3 and 6 inches for most species. If it is too high it becomes stemmy and less nutritious however long grass is best for the goats (less worms) and they prefer it.

Gail Combs

I am surprised Allan Savory has not mentioned the work done in India with Leucaena leucocephala the “bean tree” which is a nitrogen fixer.
E.M. Smith discusses the tree (and goats) HERE

General P. Malaise

thanks. good balance to the TED talk.

Lew Skannen

Interesting discussion. This is why I love WUWT because I can read solid articles written in a sober fashion.
I don’t think that many people on this site were too concerned about the ‘climate change’ aspect of Savory’s talk. I just assuned that it was tagged on to make sure the talk got some coverage and appeased the high priests etc.
The interesting bit for me was the salvage and recovery of damaged land and I still think that there is some merit in trying some of the ideas.

David L. Hagen

Thanks Tim for your discussion and clarification.
I also found Savory demonstrated remarkable improvements.
I think it is important to recognize where his methods do apply and the possible improvements from them versus where new methods are needed to provide water in dry lands.
See Resourcesat the Savory Institute
Doing what works
Holistic Management Research Portfolio
e.g. Effect of grazing on soil-water content in semiarid rangelands of southeast Idaho

Soil-water content (%VWC) was highest in the holistic planned grazing pasture (HPG). ► HPG used high intensity, short-duration grazing (6 days/year). ► Percent litter cover was also highest under the HPG treatment. ► Soil-water content varies in response to animal impact and the duration of grazing.

Richard M

I suspect that Savory is partially right and changing the farming method at the edges of deserts would increase growth which would become a sink for CO2. In addition, the thing he did not mention was deforestation which has also had an impact. By replanting forest we would increase yet another CO2 sink. The combination would be significant.

Believe nothing one reads or hears without verifying it oneself unless it is Weltanschauung congruent. Narration requires suspension of disbelief, the witch doctor’s tool. TED is visually attractive gee-whiz edutainment.


Savory’s ideas for de-desertifying lands are great but they have nothing to do with climate change. There is nothing wrong with having more edible animals for the food supply, either. Making any land more productive is a good thing and imagine all of the peripheral habitat it would be producing for all kinds of other life.

Gail Combs

da wolfe says:
March 25, 2013 at 2:47 am
Elrich was totally wrong but there could be a point of overpopulation. I believe I’ve heard that 60% of the photosynthesis on earth goes to humans eventually…..
That statement just got debunked here at WUWT recently. The value is closer to 3% link
As others have mentioned over-population is caused by POVERTY. Just look at the CIA fertility rate tables. This entry gives a figure for the average number of children that would be born per woman if all women lived to the end of their childbearing years and bore children according to a given fertility rate at each age. The total fertility rate (TFR) is a more direct measure of the level of fertility than the crude birth rate, since it refers to births per woman. This indicator shows the potential for population change in the country…


Gail, your comments about horses certainly struck a chord. I have never seen such devastation as in a 3 acre bush paddock with one horse in it for a couple of years. The horse was fed chaff and lucerne, so was not hungry. Mind, you, a goat may have done similar, but goats are smaller :). Horses are compulsive eaters and chewers, and any owner knows that if you don’t control their food intake, they get fat. They chew fenceposts if nothing else is available.
Anyway, I take issue with those who excuse Savory’s CO2 nonsense because it’s OK to lie in a good cause. How anyone who reads WUWT can run that line is hard to comprehend.

Is the difference between grazing and browsing effective here, a difference between goats and sheep, cattle and horse? As I recall, one crops to the roots and the other leaves stubble.

Gary Pearse

Good treatise on the why and how of deserts and fringing grasslands and a fair assessment of Savory’s partially successful re-greening idea. My comment is that we can’t dismiss all of all the competing claims for desertification. I worked in the Sahel in northern Nigeria,in the mid 60s, albeit as a mapper of the geology and not as an agronomist. The practice of cutting the meagre stunted wood of the area for fuel and burning the grasses for cropping before the seasonal rains must be considered a contributor to desertification however defined.
I was witness to a natural ‘Savory” situation, although I didn’t think of it as anything of the kind at the time. On one traverse across part of my map sheet on one of the hottest days.I came to a dry stream valley about 150 m (500ft) across that was choked with scrubby trees with a continuous rusty-brown-leafed canopy about 2.5 metres (8ft) high. I took a compass shot on an rock outcrop feature on the far bank and plunged into the crackly, dusty “forest”, only to be scared out of my wits by a sudden thundering and crashing and a choking cloud of dust. Fortunately, whatever stinky creatures they were, they seemed to be going away from me so I continued cautiously, catching a glimpse of the telltale rears of warthogs slowed up by the main ‘sounder’ of fleeing hogs ahead, paint-brush-tipped tails, vertical, waving like upside down pendula virtually all dropping a load of crap. I found myself soon almost mired in it. When I got through to the other side, I could see the stragglers disappearing back into the forest a couple of hundred metres (500-600feet) south of me. With no water to clean myself up, I walked to my landrover and soon made my malodorous return to the village where I was staying. I have no doubt now what sustained this mini forest. It is helped in a big way by the fact that in Muslim northern Nigeria they don’t eat pigs.

Entertainingly, running through the posts on the site I read one by Willie E about the very ‘stat’ about human’s photosynthesis share being something like 40 (in the ’86 source study it seems) and as I remembered hearing, 60% which might be the today adjusted number. Seeing as how Elrich was one of the authors (!) my trust in the number takes a heckuva beating although I think it is reasonable to include some of the things that were included which Willie dismisses… if not at a 100% rating.


tty says:
March 25, 2013 at 1:07 am
This is completely wrong and an obsolete terminology. Actually deserts grow during glaciations and shrink during interglacials. During the previous (warmer) interglacial Sahara virtually disappeared while during the last glaciation it almost reached to the Guinea Gulf. That was also when e. g. the Nebraska Sandhills was an actual desert.
tty, w/o searching, I was under the impression that the Sahara was only partially tied to the interglacials. True, it was generally expanded during the glacials, but the 20k yr precession cycle caused a variance from that — the highest summer insolation periods even during glacials allowed monsoons to penetrate further into the desert than low summer-insolation periods.

Richard M

For those who think Savory was way off base for mentioning climate change consider the alternative. If he had stated CO2 driven climate change was bunk he would never have gotten on the stage. I really don’t know what Savory believes, but he almost had to take the position he did to get his story out.

Gail Combs

Lew Skannen says:
March 25, 2013 at 5:08 am
… The interesting bit for me was the salvage and recovery of damaged land and I still think that there is some merit in trying some of the ideas.
It is a great idea as long as it is not used as a cover for controlling people. The WTO and UN formed committees to write the “Guides to Good Farming Practices” and other ‘Guides” that are now being put in place as regulations in the EU, Australia, Canada and soon in the USA under the guise of “Food Safety”
From my long ago copy: (Reading this was the moment when my intense dislike of bureaucrats jelled)

Guide to good farming practices for animal production food safety
OIE Animal Production Food Safety Working Group
World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), 12 rue de Prony, 75017 Paris, France
This draft guide to good farming practices for animal production food safety was taken from the Report of the Meeting of the OIE Terrestrial Animal Health Standards Commission (Paris, 17-28 January 2005).
Following a request by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) International Committee to strengthen activities in the food safety area, and desiring to further develop collaboration with the Codex Alimentarius Commission (CAC), a permanent ‘OIE Working Group on Animal Production Food Safety’ was established in 2002. The Working Group’s role is to coordinate OIE activities related to animal production food safety and to provide advice to the Director General of the OIE and relevant Specialist Commissions in these areas.
The draft guide to good farming practices presented in this article has been produced by the Working Group. The Working Group is further developing this guide, so this article cannot be considered as a definitive version. The version reported here was included in the report of the third meeting of the OIE Working Group, which was published in the report of the meeting of the OIE Terrestrial Animal Health Standards Commission (January 2005). Other international standards and recommendations are included in the Appendix…..

First consider the COST that is passed on to consumers if the farmers are to stay in business. One dairy farmer in the UK reported he now spends 60% of his time on paperwork not farming. He is the only dairy left in his area all the rest quit. (per years ago) I consider any farmer who continues to produce food under these conditions an idiot and a fool because of the heavy fines and risk of jail all based on the whim of some petty Hitler.

July 25, 2011 Red Tape Rising: A 2011 Mid-Year Report
…the Obama Administration is continuing to unleash more costly red tape. In the first six months of the 2011 fiscal year, 15 major regulations were issued, with annual costs exceeding $5.8 billion and one-time implementation costs approaching $6.5 billion. No major rulemaking actions were taken to reduce regulatory burdens during this period. Overall, the Obama Administration imposed 75 new major regulations from January 2009 to mid-FY 2011, with annual costs of $38 billion. …
….There is no official accounting of total regulatory costs, and estimates vary. Unlike the budgetary accounting of direct tax revenues, Washington does not track the total burdens imposed by its expansive rulemaking. An oft-quoted estimate of $1.75 trillion[1] annually represents nearly twice the amount of individual income taxes collected last year.

Here are a few bits from this draft to give you an idea of how much control they want.

Record keeping
[from Section a) buildings and other facilities: surroundings and environmental control) – so as to make access difficult for unauthorised persons or vehicles (barriers, fences, signs)]
Keep a record of all persons entering the farm: visitors, service staff and farm professionals (veterinarian, milk tester, inseminator, feed deliverer, carcass disposal agent, etc.)
keep the medical certificates of persons working in contact with animals and any document certifying their qualifications and training

keep, for each animal or group of animals, all documents relating to the treatment and veterinary actions
keep all laboratory reports, including bacteriological tests and sensitivity tests (data to be placed at the disposal of the veterinarian responsible for treating the animals)
keep all documents proving that the bacteriological and physico-chemical quality of the water given to the animals is regularly tested
keep all records of all feed manufacture procedures and manufacturing records for each batch of feed
keep detailed records of any application of chemical products to fields, pastures and grain silos, as well as the dates that animals are put out to grass and on which plots of land
keep all the records relating to the cleaning and disinfection procedures used in the farm (including data sheets for each detergent or disinfectant used) as well as all the records showing that these procedures have effectively been implemented (job sheets, self-inspection checks on the effectiveness of the operations) and animal products
keep documents relating to the pest control plan (including the data sheets for each raticide and insecticide used) as well as all the records showing that the control plan has effectively been implemented (plan showing the location of baits and insecticide diffusers, self-inspection checks on the effectiveness of the plan)
keep all the documents relating to self-inspections (by the livestock producer) and controls (by the authorities and other official bodies) relating to the proper management of the farm and the sanitary and hygienic quality of the animal products leaving it
keep all documents sent by the official inspection services (distributors or the quality control departments of food-processing firms) relating to anomalies detected at the abattoir, dairy, processing plant or during the distribution of products (meat, eggs, milk, fish, etc.) derived from the farm’s animals
ensure that all these documents are kept long enough to enable any subsequent investigations to be carried out to determine whether contamination of food products detected at the secondary production or distribution stage was due to a dysfunction at the primary production level
place all these documents and records at the disposal of the competent authority (Veterinary Services) when it conducts farm visits.
Grassland and pasture
Carry out a risk assessment when livestock are put out to pasture outside the farm: in particular, ensure that the land where the animals are put out to pasture is not exposed to potential sources of chronic contamination (e.g. main road with heavy traffic, domestic waste incineration plant), is not polluted with chemical residues (e.g. pesticides, dioxins, heavy metals) at an unacceptable level and is not known to harbour animal pathogens (bacteria, e.g. anthrax spores; parasites, e.g. flukes);ensure that the fields surrounding the pasture are not sprayed with substances that have not been shown to be safe, and that the animals cannot have access to potentially contaminating material on the perimeter of the pasture (e.g. unauthorised dumping, stocks of herbicides, posts coated with aluminium paint);….
Use of commercial feed
Require that all the animal feed purchased is free of chemical residues and complies with regulatory requirements (obtain, if this is not stated on the label, a certificate guaranteeing that it complies with the regulations)
check that the feed delivered is correctly labelled (manufacturer’s name, composition, manufacturing date, use-by date, instructions for use and precautionary measures to be followed, batch number, etc.) and that the packaging is intact and without any defect that might have affected the contents
check the quality of the feed delivered in terms of provision for appearance (visual examination) and keep a written record of the results
refuse, treat appropriately or destroy any feed presenting traces of contamination by mould – ensure that feed for ruminants is free from any trace of animal by-products prohibited by the regulations and eliminate any risk of accidental cross-contamination
keep samples of purchased feed for any subsequent analytical testing should a problem of residues be identified at the farm production level
store feed in a clean area, protected from humidity and pests (insects and rodents)
if storage conditions are not optimal, prefer more, frequent deliveries of smaller quantities
seek advice if there is the slightest doubt as to the quality of the feed given to animals
store the manufactured feed in a clean place, protected Chemical hazards from humidity and pests (insects and rodents)
in the case of bulk feed, do not mix two batches of feed in the same container (separate hoppers) have the composition of the manufactured feed checked at least once a year (correct dosages of the various ingredients, presence of any contaminants)
keep an up-to-date register of feed delivered and used (batch numbers and dates of use)
seek advice if there is the slightest doubt as to the quality of the manufactured feed
when a problem occurs that could affect the safety of animal products, inform the competent authorities immediately…..
Manufacture of animal feed on the farm
Check the quality of the raw materials delivered in terms of their appearance (visual examination, to rule out any risk of macroscopic contamination) and keep a record of the findings
ensure that all the raw materials of plant origin used as ingredients for animal feed have been grown, stored and treated using validated procedures
keep an up-to-date register of the raw materials delivered and used (batch numbers, dates used, batch numbers of the feed in which they were used). – store the raw materials in a clean area, protected from humidity and pests (insects and rodents) – eliminate raw materials presenting traces of contamination with mould
comply with the recommendations regarding storage (in a safe place) and the use of additives and feed supplements (always follow the recommendations on the label regarding dosage and withdrawal periods)
ensure uniform mixing of the different components
eliminate any risk of cross-contamination, at all stages (production, storage and distribution) have clearly defined written procedures for these
manufacture of feed, fixing precisely the formulation and production stages, and, in particular, making provision for mixers to be purged between the production of two types of feed with different ingredients
regularly check and calibrate weighing machines
plan corrective actions to be implemented in the event of a formulation error and actions to deal with substandard batches that might constitute a hazard
keep, and file for as long as necessary, up-to-date manufacturing records specifying the dosage and batch number(s) of each of the raw materials used
keep samples of manufactured feed for subsequent analytical testing should a problem of residues be identified at the farm production level
set a use-by date for each batch of manufactured feed, taking into account the use-by dates of each of the ingredients and the packaging and storage conditions
correctly label the sacks or hoppers containing the manufactured feed (date of manufacture, feed type, batch number, use-by date)
Source from many years ago:

Thank you Gail Combs!


“… but he should also have introduced the idea of restocking some areas with natural herds, such as bison in North America.”
It is not clear to me for what reason “should” he have done that. It does not even make sense to me in context of his talk.
“The problem is expansion of the food supply usually creates an increase in the human population,”
This is one of the most stupid arguments I’ve ever heard. It’s about as stupid as an argument that highways make people travel more.
Do you really believe that starvation is the right solution to human overpopulation?
“First is the claim the world is overpopulated. It is not!”
Overpopulation is a generally undesirable condition where an organism’s numbers exceed the current carrying capacity of its habitat (wikipedia). There are clearly regions on the Earth where this definition is met with the “carrying capacity” being the food supply. It sure enough is not in the USA, but don’t forget that USA is not the whole world.
“The second error is his identification of land ‘suffering’ from desertification.”
Sure enough, nature does not care whether it’s grassland or moon surface; the definition of ‘suffering’ is purely human construct. The question being ‘is it better if this land is desert or grassland?’, Savory’s answer is grassland and the reason is clearly because it is better suitable to hold human population than desert. Is that really an error? Or is it just a different point of view?
“The third error he makes, is to assume climate change is new and caused by humans.”
I did not notice him assuming this anywhere throughout the presentation. He sure is riding the wave of climate change to give his voice more power but his claim is that more grassland is going to bind more atmospheric carbon. You don’t need any assumptions on climate change for that.
“Savory refers to the rock paintings of herd animals in the central Sahara. They occur there because of climate change when increased rainfall supported grasslands. During the last Ice Age the Polar climate zones expanded pushing the mid latitude temperate climates toward the Equator.”
In the light of information known to me, this is misinformation. During the last ice age, Sahara desert was even larger than today. The period of ‘green sahara’ falls approximately to the period of Roman Warming, deep into the Holocene.
“It is not clear how his proposal will stop climate change.”
As I wrote above, Savory is clearly not really interested in (battle with) climate change and is rather riding the wave. But he makes his points very clear so I don’t understand how could the author have missed them.
I don’t remember him talking about albedo in the talk. What I remember, however, is that he says that changing desert into grassland binds more atmospheric CO2 (valid argument as long as we consider atmospheric CO2 dangerous for climate; irrelevant if we don’t) and affects local climate (towards one more habitable for humans). And as long as global climate is a sum of local climates over all different locations, the change is there.
No, I don’t believe Mr. Savory will stop global warming or save the world. His methods are not applicable everywhere. But his results are impressive anyway.

I think trees would be more effective than grass and are less affected by livestock. They store both energy and water, and change the albedo. They moderate their micro environment.

Alberta Slim

Greg says:
March 25, 2013 at 4:15 am
re Savory: “He has shown good results over more than a decade, so there’s plenty of merit. It’s certainly far better than what we currently have, which is people blaming everything on global warming.” …………………………
I agree with Greg. He sums it very nicely
But Tim Ball’s response is important also for a better understanding. IMO.

Geoff C says:
March 25, 2013 at 1:04 am
Someone should tell the judges of all the ‘farmer of the year’ awards that Science disagrees with their choices: it has proved many times that grazing management is no better than continuous or set stocking.
Reading the paper, it points out that when scientific studies yield different results than the farmers observed, it is the scientific study that is in error. In this case what was found is that the scientific study did not take into account that animals don’t graze a large area evenly. The tend to overgraze the grass that tastes good, and undergraze the grass that doesn’t.
So, what farmers are finding is that when you confine the animals to small grazing areas and rotate them, you force the animals to eat the grass they don’t care for, which makes for more even results across a much larger area.
Anyone that has raised children has experienced the same situation. Children tend to graze the food they like and leave the food they don’t. Parents have observed that if you feed the children vegetables first and dessert last as a reward for finishing their vegetables, you can actually get children to eat vegetables – regardless of all the scientific studies.

Jeff Alberts

My yard is green and lush during all seasons except high summer, when we don’t get enough rainfall to support growth. My neighbor’s handful of goats and alapacas have completely destroyed all the grass in their small grazing area. Which is why they push under my fence where the grass is greener. They’ve desertified their pen.


Figure 3… all this in order to NOT recognize Leroux’s work. Pathetic.