Scientists find huge reduction in African dust plume led to more Saharan monsoons 11000 years ago – Phys.Org

 In Science
Satellite imagery of Africa. Credit: Public Domain

Every year, trade winds over the Sahara Desert sweep up huge plumes of mineral dust, transporting hundreds of teragrams—enough to fill 10 million dump trucks—across North Africa and over the Atlantic Ocean. This dust can be blown for thousands of kilometers and settle in places as far away as Florida and the Bahamas.

The Sahara is the largest source of windblown dust to the Earth’s atmosphere. But researchers from MIT, Yale University, and elsewhere now report that the African plume was far less dusty between 5,000 and 11,000 years ago, containing only half the amount of dust that is transported today.

In a paper published today in Science Advances, the researchers have reconstructed the African dust plume over the last 23,000 years and observed a dramatic reduction in dust beginning around 11,000 years ago. They say this weakened plume may have allowed more sunlight to reach the ocean, increasing its temperature by 0.15 degrees Celsius—a small but significant spike that likely helped whip up monsoons over North Africa, where climate at the time was far more temperate and hospitable than it is today.

“In the tropical ocean, fractions of a degree can cause big differences in precipitation patterns and winds,” says co-author David McGee, the Kerr-McGee Career Development Assistant Professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. “It does seem like dust variations may have large enough effects that it’s important to know how big those impacts were in past and future climates.”

McGee’s co-authors include lead author Ross Williams, a former graduate student at MIT; along with Christopher Kinsley, Irit Tal, and David Ridley from MIT; Shineng Hu and Alexey Fedorov from Yale University; Richard Murray from Boston University; and Peter deMenocal from Columbia University.

A wet Sahara

Around 11,000 years ago, the Earth had just emerged from the last ice age and was beginning a new, interglacial epoch known as the Holocene. Geologists and archaeologists have found evidence that during this period the Sahara was much greener, wetter, and more livable than it is today.

“There was also extensive human settlement throughout the Sahara, with lifestyles that would never be possible today,” McGee says. “Researchers at archaeological sites have found fish hooks and spears in the middle of the Sahara, in places that would be completely uninhabitable today. So there was clearly much more water and precipitation over the Sahara.”

This evidence of wet conditions shows that the region experienced regular monsoon rains during the early Holocene. This was primarily due to the slow wobbling of Earth’s axis, which exposed the Northern Hemisphere to more sunlight during summer; this, in turn, warmed the land and ocean and drew more water vapor—and precipitation—over North Africa. Increased vegetation in the Sahara may have also played a role, absorbing sunlight and heating the surface, drawing more moisture over the land.

“The mysterious thing is, if you try to simulate all these changes in these early and mid-Holocene climates, the models intensify the monsoons, but nowhere near the amounts suggested by the paleodata,” McGee says. “One of the things not factored into these simulations is changes in windblown dust.”

Tracking a dust plume

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