The Research Gap off Somalia’s Coast May Have Permanent Consequences

Paul Salopek is writing a fascinating series of articles for National Geographic detailing his walk from Africa to South America across the migration routes that the first humans are believed to have followed. His 25 April entry is from Djibouti, where piracy has severely impacted offshore scientific research.

I mentioned in a previous post that one of my professors had to run a science ship at night with no lights on while drilling for core samples off the coast of Somalia. According to Salopek, the piracy situation in the Gulf of Aden is now so bad that even running blacked out at night is now off-limits to scientists:

“No question, it’s been a serious setback,” says [American paleoanthropologist Tim] 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.”

Scientists lay out the stakes:

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.

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.

I’m not sure how one stops piracy. The fad in international affairs is to assume that lack of job opportunities drives young men into violent criminal organizations like pirate groups. This explanation seems unsatisfying to me because it doesn’t explain why so many people in desperate situations don’t turn to crime or violence. It also doesn’t necessarily imply a solution because once a group has formed its identity around violence, it can be very difficult to get its members to turn to peaceful economic alternatives if such alternatives can be made available. Jobs may be the “only exit strategy,” as they say, but culture must value jobs over violence.

Perversely, the dearth of climate research in the Gulf of Aden may worsen the economic situation of food insecure Africans who are vulnerable to climate change and cyclical rainfall variation. This could contribute to a feedback loop that further incentivizes piracy. Just a thought.

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