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.

A Greek freighter taken over by Somali pirates in 2011. Marine Traffic/ZUMA

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.

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