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Sahara's abrupt desertification started by changes in Earth's orbit, accelerated by atmospheric and vegetation feedbacks

WASHINGTON -- One of the most striking climate changes of the past 11,000 years caused the abrupt desertification of the Saharan and Arabia regions midway through that period. The resulting loss of the Sahara to agricultural pursuits may be an important reason that civilizations were founded along the valleys of the Nile, the Tigris, and the Euphrates. German scientists, employing a new climate system model, have concluded that this desertification was initiated by subtle changes in the Earth's orbit and strongly amplified by resulting atmospheric and vegetation feedbacks in the subtropics. The timing of this transition was, they report, mainly governed by a global interplay among atmosphere, ocean, sea ice, and vegetation. Their research is published in the July 15 issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

The researchers, headed by Martin Claussen of the Potsdam-Institut fuer Klimafolgenforschung (Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research) employed a model of intermediate complexity to analyze climate feedbacks during the past several thousand years of the current, or Holocene, era. Called CLIMBER-2 (for CLIMate and BiosphERe, version 2.1), the model led to the conclusion that the desertification of North Africa began abruptly 5,440 years ago (+/- 30 years). Before that time, the Sahara was covered by annual grasses and low shrubs, as evidenced by fossilized pollen.

The transition to today's arid climate was not gradual, but occurred in two specific episodes. The first, which was less severe, occurred between 6,700 and 5,500 years ago. The second, which was brutal, lasted from 4,000 to 3,600 years ago. Summer temperatures increased sharply, and precipitation decreased, according to carbon-14 dating. This event devastated ancient civilizations and their socio-economic systems.

The change from the mid-Holocene climate to that of today was initiated by changes in the Earth's orbit and the tilt of Earth's axis. Some
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Contact: Harvey Leifert
hleifert@agu.org
202-777-7507
American Geophysical Union
7-Jul-1999


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