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The Deserts of Spain

Niamh Burn, A Level Biology, Chemistry and Geography student, reporting on a recent College trip to Almeria province in the Andalucía region of Spain.

In October, I, along with 37 Year 13 Geography students, headed out to Southern Spain. After a 5am meetup, a surprisingly easy security check and a plain-sailing plane ride, we arrived at Almeria Airport. We then headed towards our youth hostel and after a short stop for lunch, we arrived. At the youth hostel, we had our first talk, where experts discussed the reasons for the aridity in the area, the effects of the aridity and what is being done to help it. During this talk, we were also introduced to the wonderful staff and owner of the youth hostel, who were able to offer their own insights into water usage in the area. They also cooked a fantastic paella to welcome us, and then we spent the rest of the warm evening hanging out in the bar, playing darts, pool and chatting in the last of the sunshine.

Day two, we woke up bright and early, with breakfast at 8am and then we headed out to visit some of Almeria’s greenhouses. Here we met Lola, who talked us through how they grew the fruit and vegetables, and the steps they were taking to become sustainable. The main crops here were tomatoes and peppers and we were able to see the processes of water conservation in practice, from the inside it was hard to align this with the desert-like environment outside. Afterwards, they were kind enough to provide us with some delicious samples of food they had recently grown.

That afternoon we went to visit a solar array, where we got to hear talks on four different solar projects. The first talk was on research into improving energy sources, making them greener, more efficient, and ideally cheaper. This involved using solar panels, with Almeria being the perfect place for this research as there are huge amounts of solar radiation, and less than 150mm of rainfall per year. It was here they researched the power of solar energy, and we were shown a Parabolic Trough, which is a group of pipes that moves from side to side, with radiation concentrated onto the middle pipe, which heats oil up to 400 degrees. We were amazed by the different ways solar energy can be used and how it is used by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Space Shuttle. It was getting to be a long day in the sun and sunscreen was being passed around by everyone, but we weren’t finished yet. After the solar array, we headed back to the youth hostel, where we spent the afternoon catching up on our notes, playing football and relaxing in the evening sunshine.

Day three, we were starting to get the hang of the early starts and we visited the main water distributor for the greenhouse farms in Nijar. This was fascinating, as we learnt about Nijar’s water budget and the different ways that Nijar receives its water supply. It became clear that the scarcity of water and overuse by the many different businesses and industries in the area was causing a significant issue and these issues were only getting worse.

We then got the chance to explore Almeria town centre that afternoon, where we got to experience the local culture and spend some free time looking around local shops. The town centre had some beautiful architecture, however there were a lot of fountains given the extent of water insecurity in the area.

For the final visit of the day, we visited the University of Almeria and were lucky enough to listen to lecturers discuss the issues associated with migration. They were fascinating and provided us with a new perspective on the intensive greenhouse farming in Almeria, and the impact humans are having. They talked about the way many of the immigrants, particularly those from Africa, were exploited and forced to work for the farmers in poor conditions with temperatures of up to 45 degrees in the greenhouses. That evening, Mr Foster put on a Sergio Leone western film which, as it was filmed in the region, was quite atmospheric, and we were able to spend more time chilling in the bar which had become, for many, their second home to listen to music and play pool.

By the final day we felt we had packed so much in, and we were beginning to build a very in-depth understanding of the human and physical problems of the region which would support us in preparing for our upcoming exams. The desalination plant was our first stop of the day, where we were able to see how sea water is converted to freshwater. This plant used water from about 1km away from the shoreline, and through reverse osmosis, the salt is removed, leaving fresh, safe drinking water. We were even given a sample of the newly desalinated water to try, and we also learnt that there were possibilities of mining the brine afterwards for lithium, which is a rare earth element and in many areas of the world, land is being destroyed and scarred to get at it. As the temperature rose, we drove into the volcanic hills of Cabo De Gata to visit a volcano, where we walked 8km in the 31-degree heat. On the walk, we got to see a well and an abandoned farmstead along with terraces that had been built on the hillside, to act almost like a dam, to stop water from flowing away without infiltrating the soil. Within the Caldera, we did some work on interpreting the volcanic behaviour of this now extinct but obviously once very violent volcano. Finally, we had some well-earned relaxation time at the beach, where some students went swimming whilst others went for walks around the town. Back at the field centre, the staff hosted a delicious BBQ for us, and we spent the late afternoon relaxing in the sun. Then we spent the evening in the bar, where the staff hosted a pool tournament followed by a fantastic Karaoke. This brought the trip to a close and the next day we were on our way back home.

Overall, it was a brilliant trip, that provided us with some truly insightful case studies we can use in our A Level exams, as well as being a great experience that we will remember for the rest our lives.

Lee Jackson

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