How Somali Pirates Almost (but Not Quite) Halted Vital Climate Change Research

Evidence from the final research vessel to brave the treacherous waters off the coast of Africa in 2001 may have just turned the tables on the accepted scientific view of how—and how quickly—the Sahara became a desert.
Suspected pirates in the Gulf of Aden, February 2009 (Reuters)

What do Somali pirates have to do with climate change? 

Not much, except that the threat of the machine-gun slinging bandits has ended critical oceanographic research on the seabed of the Indian Ocean—research that is crucial to our understanding of how and when, exactly, the world’s largest arid region dried out. Climate investigations off the Horn of Africa were suspended just weeks before September 11, 2001, after a scientific vessel, the Maurice Ewing, was attacked with rocket propelled grenades 18 nautical miles off the Somali coast.

But, amazingly, one final research vessel somehow passed through a phalanx of small-craft pirate boats in the Gulf of Aden unscathed. 

"It was like the wild west out there,” Columbia University marine geologist Peter B. deMenocal told me in a phone interview. They were getting frequent emergency faxes saying that ships all around them were being attacked. But their vessel was seemingly invisible to the pirates, whose launches they could clearly see.

It’s a good thing for science that they made it: The ship bore sediment cores, long tubes of mud from the bottom of the ocean. According to deMenocal, the results from the examination of those cores, to be published in the next issue of the journal Science, are poised to revolutionize our view of how the eastern Sahara and Horn of Africa became a desert. 

This is a question that has huge implications for our understanding of how dry areas get created. In coming decades, as temperatures continue to warm in places like the American Southwest and the Sahel on the Sahara's border, that understanding, and our ability to make accurate models based on it, will be crucial.

The Sahara—parts of which get virtually no rainfall—is the most arid region on Earth. But it was not always that way. There was a wet time, beginning around 10,000 years ago (called the African Humid Period), when large parts of the present-day Sahara looked more like the Serengeti plains in east Africa: tree-pocked grasslands which supported a diversity of animals such as giraffes, rhinos and roaming herds of wildebeest, as well as large human populations. 

But then things began to change—the climate became progressively hotter and drier. This coincided with the founding of pharaonic civilization in Egypt 5,000 years ago, when human migration from increasingly inhospitable regions to the Nile Valley sparked the meteoric rise of ancient Egypt. 

The Sahara Desert (with the Nile River snaking through) and the Red Sea, as seen from the International Space Station (Reuters)

Precisely how—and how quickly—the region dried up, however, has been a matter of scientific dispute. A 2008 study by Stefan Kröpelin of the Institute of Prehistoric Archaeology at the University of Cologne in Germany of Lake Yoa in northern Chad concluded that there had been a gradual transformation to a desert environment over a period of several millennia, as the north African monsoonal rains gradually moved south. 

However, the information from the final research vessel to brave Somali pirates may have just turned the tables on this accepted scientific view. Jessica Tierney, of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and deMenocal, of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University used a newly developed technique, the analysis of the hydrogen and carbon isotopes in minute particles of leaf wax (the shiny outer coatings of leaves) in ocean sediments to get climate information for the last twenty thousand years. The ocean, which is not subject to erosion and other geological and chemical processes that effect deposits on the land, preserves the Earth’s continuous climate history intact (much as ice core samples do in the polar regions.)

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Richard Schiffman is an environmental journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, NPR, and The New York Times.

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