Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Sahara Is Millions of Years Older Than Thought

[Smithsonian MagazineThe movement of tectonic plates that created the Mediterranean Sea and the Alps also sparked the drying of the Sahara some 7 million years ago, according to the latest computer simulations of Earth’s ancient climate.
Though North Africa is currently covered by the world’s largest non-polar desert, climate conditions in the region have not been constant there for the last several million years. Subtle changes in Earth’s tilt toward the sun periodically increase the amount of solar energy received by the Northern Hemisphere in summer, altering atmospheric currents and driving monsoon rains. North Africa also sees more precipitation when less of the planet’s water is locked up in ice. Such increases in moisture limit how far the Sahara can spread and can even spark times of a “green Sahara”, when the sparse desert is replaced by abundant lakes, plants and animals.
Before the great desert was born, North Africa had a moister, semiarid climate. A few lines of evidence, including ancient dune deposits found in Chad, had hinted that the arid Sahara may have existed at least 7 million years ago. But without a mechanism to explain how it emerged, few scientists thought that the desert we see today could really be that old. Instead, most scientists argue that the Sahara took shape just 2 to 3 million years ago. Terrestrial and marine evidence suggest that North Africa underwent a period of drying at that time, when the Northern Hemisphere started its most recent cycle of glaciation. Read More