Today in Astonishment: The Amazon Rainforest Gets Half Its Nutrients From a Single, Tiny Spot in the Sahara

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The Amazon basin is one of the world's wondrous ecosystems, supporting massive amounts of life, both in kind and quantity. You might have thought about poison frogs or monkeys, but you've probably never stopped to wonder, "Where are all the nutrients that power this biotic explosion coming from?"

The answer is actually astonishing and delightful in that one-planet-one-love kind of way. As laid out in a 2006 paper that science writer Colin Schultz dug up, nearly half of the nutrients that power the Amazon come from a valley in the Sahara called the Bodélé depression. At 17,100 square miles, the area is about a third of the size of Florida or 0.5 percent the size of the Amazon basin it supplies.

"This depression is a unique dust source due to its location at a bottle neck of two large magmatic formations that serves as a `wind lens', guiding and focusing the surface winds to the Bodélé," the authors, an international team of geologists, wrote.

This is what that looks like.

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But now let's zoom out. The dust storms that come swirling out of the Sahara can cover an area larger than the United States. That's the only scale that could deliver 40 million tons of dust from Africa to the Amazonian basin each year.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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