Sahara Desert Greening Due to Climate Change?

July 31, 2009

Desertification, drought, and despair—that's what global warming has in store for much of Africa. Or so we hear.

Emerging evidence is painting a very different scenario, one in which rising temperatures could benefit millions of Africans in the driest parts of the continent.

Scientists are now seeing signals that the Sahara desert and surrounding regions are greening due to increasing rainfall.

If sustained, these rains could revitalize drought-ravaged regions, reclaiming them for farming communities.

This desert-shrinking trend is supported by climate models, which predict a return to conditions that turned the Sahara into a lush savanna some 12,000 years ago.

Green Shoots

The green shoots of recovery are showing up on satellite images of regions including the Sahel, a semi-desert zone bordering the Sahara to the south that stretches some 2,400 miles (3,860 kilometers).

Images taken between 1982 and 2002 revealed extensive regreening throughout the Sahel, according to a new study in the journal Biogeosciences.

The study suggests huge increases in vegetation in areas including central Chad and western Sudan.

The transition may be occurring because hotter air has more capacity to hold moisture, which in turn creates more rain, said Martin Claussen of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, who was not involved in the new study.

"The water-holding capacity of the air is the main driving force," Claussen said.

(See a map of global warming's impacts.)

Continued on Next Page >>


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