During 32 years of fieldwork in the deserts of Ethiopia, Tim White, the eminent American paleoanthropologist, has brazened through every conceivable obstacle to his research into human origins.
Flash floods have marooned his vehicles in hip-deep pools of mud. Grazing wars between groups of nomads have blocked access to promising fossil beds. And campfire visits by snakes and tarantulas are so routine they rank as minor nuisances.
Yet nothing has stymied White's pursuit of knowledge—or thwarted his scientific ambitions—like the hard-eyed men in flip-flop sandals who, valuing doubloons above Darwin, set sail hundreds of miles away in skiffs stocked with machine guns and rope ladders: Somali pirates.
"No question, it's been a serious setback," says White, who has waited years, in vain, for a research vessel to drill crucial seabed cores off Somalia that would revolutionize the dating of East Africa's spectacular hominid finds. "Piracy has stopped oceanographic work in the region. There's been no data coming out of this area for years. Zero."
White isn't alone in his frustration.
Scientists from around the globe, specializing in subjects as diverse as plate tectonics, plankton evolution, oceanography, and climate change, are decrying a growing void of research that has spread across hundreds of thousands of square miles of the Indian Ocean near the Horn of Africa—an immense, watery "data hole" swept clean of scientific research by the threat of Somali buccaneering.
Major efforts to study the dynamics of monsoons, predict global warming, or dig into seafloors to reveal humankind's prehistory have been scuttled by the same gangs of freebooters who, over the course of the past decade, have killed dozens of mariners, held thousands more hostage, and, by one World Bank estimate, fleeced the world of $18 billion a year in economic losses.
The cost to science may be less visible to the public. But it won't be borne solely by scholars.
Years of missing weather data off the Horn of Africa, for example, will affect the lives of millions of people. A scarcity of surface wind readings has already created distortions in weather models that forecast the strength, direction, and timing of rains that sustain vast farming belts on surrounding continents.
Shelving a Rosetta Stone
"This problem has been going on a long time and with virtually no public awareness," says Sarah Feakins, a researcher at the University of Southern California whose work on paleoclimates has been hijacked by piracy fears. "All kinds of efforts are made to keep the commercial sea lanes around Somalia open. Nobody talks about the lost science."
Feakins's woes highlight the toll the pirates have exacted, albeit unwittingly, on one earth science practice in particular: seabed core sampling, which involves a miniscule global fleet of expensive research vessels that—because they stay in place to drill—are sitting ducks.
Oceanic sediment cores offer researchers a valuable archive of Earth's climate history. Ancient pollen, plankton, dust, and other clues collected from seafloors provide the bulk of what scientists know about global changes to the planet's ecosystems over time.
In 2011, Feakins devised a novel way of harnessing this technology to test one of the oldest questions of human evolution: Did our ancestors actually climb down from trees because of expanding savannas in Africa?
By poring over cores from the seas off East Africa, she would be able to peel back layers of ancient, windblown carbon isotopes associated with grasslands, settling the debate.
Her idea earned the coveted approval of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP), an elite international scientific organization that controls the most advanced drilling platform afloat—the JOIDES Resolution, a gigantic, high-tech oceanographic ship topped with a 200-foot-tall drilling rig.
The JOIDES Resolution, a high-tech vessel equipped with a 200-foot-tall drilling rig.
Photograph courtesy Arito Sakaguchi, IODP/TAMU
But when the location of her sampling became known—near the Gulf of Aden, the bull's-eye of the Somali pirate's hunting grounds—Feakins's project sank without a bubble.
"I'm using old cores from the 1970s now," she says. "It's all we've got."
The JOIDES Resolution is deployed in the Indian Ocean until 2016. But during the past 18 months the IODP has quietly dry-docked three major projects near Somalia.
One casualty was paleoanthropologist White's dream proposal: drilling into the Indian Ocean seabed for ashes that have wafted down from African volcanoes over the course of millions of years.
The ash, which is precisely datable under the ocean because of continuous layering, would offer a game-changing yardstick for correlating the ages of hominid fossils discovered throughout the Great Rift Valley. In effect, the clearest picture yet of the human family tree would be pulled, shimmering, from the sea.
"Rosetta," White says forlornly, referring to the Rosetta Stone, the crucial artifact that enabled 19th-century scholars to at last decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Thousands of fossils, such as this monkey skull, can be dated once drill cores are pulled from the ocean floor.
Photograph by Tim D. White
The IODP, which is funded by scientific agencies in the United States, Europe, Japan, China, and India, says it has little maneuvering room when it comes to piracy.
"We have always placed the security and safety of our staff and scientists as a number one priority," says David Divins, an IODP spokesman. "The problem is that there is some potentially pioneering science that will have to wait or find another location."
The lawless waters off Somalia, however, are unique. They offer tantalizingly rich returns on anthropological and climatological research. And even Divins admits that the wait could be long.
Research slots on the JOIDES Resolution—the name is an acronym for Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling—are ferociously competitive and booked years in advance. It could be "at least another five years or so" before the vessel returns to the region, Divins says.
Some beleaguered researchers, meanwhile, have sent out an SOS to the world's navies.
Among the armadas now hunting down Somali speedboats, the Australian Navy has shown a particular willingness to shoulder scientific work. It has agreed to lower oceanographic instruments from its warships. (Some of that equipment has been retrieved pocked with bullet holes.)
Armed escorts, however, are another matter.
The only vessels afforded close naval protection are UN World Food Program cargo ships carrying relief supplies to the Horn of Africa.
Governments balk at guarding low-priority research vessels, especially when they resemble oil company drill boats—jackpot targets for pirates. The scientific agencies operating the research ships also pan the idea, saying it would sink their insurance policies.
"When I raised the military question, it caused a firestorm of anger from everybody from the U.S. State Department to the IODP," Feakins says. "I was intimidated into just dropping it."
A Treasure Lost
The irony now is that the pirate scourge appears to have peaked off Somalia.
Statistics compiled by the International Maritime Bureau show that brigands managed to force their way aboard only 14 ships in the region in 2012, down from 31 in 2011 and 49 in 2010.
In ports such as Djibouti city, just north of Somalia, it's easy to see why.
The militarization of the area's waterways, particularly the strategic Bab-el-Mandeb Strait between Africa and Arabia, is virtually complete.
The U.S. and Europe each lead heavily armed task forces that shadow endless convoys of oil tankers and container ships past the wild shores of Somalia. Japanese corvettes sit ready at dock, their engines rumbling. Spanish, German, Turkish, and French soldiers assigned to antipiracy campaigns jam the port's hotel lobbies.
Offshore, merchant ships bob at anchor with razor wire coiled about their rails. Big placards on their hulls warn that lethal force will be used to repel attackers.
How long this martial pressure can be sustained is an open question. But for now the Somalis are outgunned.
A suspected Somali pirate is apprehended near Mumbai, India.
Photograph by Punit Paranjpe, AFP/Getty Images
Still, even if the oceanographic research community steams back into the Gulf of Aden tomorrow, the havoc that pirates have wreaked on science is enduring.
Writing in EOS, the journal of the American Geophysical Union, the meteorologists Shawn R. Smith, Mark A. Bourassa, and Michael Long point out that routine wind readings collected by ships for decades are now interrupted by a colossal blank space that gapes across 960,000 square miles (2.5 million square kilometers) of open sea.
In this case, ship captains have not simply avoided Somalia, but have refused to broadcast anything that might tip off eavesdropping buccaneers—including daily weather reports. That long radio silence has spawned a historic anomaly, or aberration, in oceanographic records.
"The data void exists in the formation region of the Somali low-level jet, a wind pattern that is one of the main drivers of the Indian summer monsoon," the EOS article's authors warn.
One consequence: It has become harder to predict long-term changes in a weather system that disperses rain across immense agricultural zones in Africa, the Middle East, and especially South Asia.
"For people trying to understand the science of climate change and the impact of El Niño on the Asian monsoon, I believe that this has been permanent damage," laments Peter Clift, an earth scientist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge.
Clift is being generous.
His own research, which explores how the Earth's geology and atmosphere interact, has been held hostage for more than a decade by the marauders off the African Horn.
He needs a drilling ship. None will come. And he says he may never complete his life's work: yet more booty stolen by the pirates of Somalia.
From 2013 to 2020, writer Paul Salopek is recreating the epic journey of our ancestors on foot, starting at humankind’s birthplace in Ethiopia and ending at the southern tip of South America, where our forebears ran out of horizon. Along the way he is engaging with the major stories of our time—from climate change to technological innovation, from mass migration to cultural survival. Moving at the slow beat of his footsteps, Paul is also seeking the quieter, hidden stories of people who rarely make the news. To read Paul Salopek's latest dispatch, go to: outofedenwalk.nationalgeographic.com