Swirls of African sand become fiercest hurricanes

Every half hour, he climbs the steps of a worn lookout tower at the dusty airfield and squints into the distance over a land of scrub brush and desert dunes.

His eyes are his radar. His nose is a barometer. His body instinctively measures the force of the approaching gusts by how terribly they whip him. His senses are the only sophisticated weather vanes for more than a thousand miles around.

What they sometimes take in makes his heart race: Huge gunmetal-colored storms that veil the sky unleash sheets of rain darker than charcoal and whip sands of the Sahara into crimson funnels.

Awesome, he thinks- a thought more of apprehension than admiration. Bandiougou Diallo is the regional weatherman in Timbuktu, Mali. But by the time he sizes up the storms, it's already too late.

Lashed by nature's fury

The people of Timbuktu, their faces covered in protective turbans and their houses layered in sand, are being lashed again by nature's fury.

As the rainy season intensifies from June to October, the lid blows off nature's pressure cooker in West Africa. The volatile mix of steamy temperatures on the ground and colliding, streaking molecules in the upper atmosphere acts like matches to kerosene.

If a rickety Russian-made plane is due to land on one of its three weekly passenger runs, Diallo will get on the shortwave radio and plead with the pilot to turn around.

Then he hunkers down in his office until the storm rumbles to the west.

He'll take down a few primitive readings of temperature, wind speed and barometric pressure from instruments that look old enough to have belonged to Ben Franklin.

He'll record them in a weathered notebook and send them to headquarters whenever a plane happens to be headed to the capital city of Bamako, 600 miles to the southwest.

Diallo, a trained meteorologist, has no idea what happens to the storms after they tear through Timbuktu. But he pities the next victims, because he knows that those systems will gather steam and punish others as they push toward the Atlantic coast to the west.

The names Andrew, Mitch, Hugo, Georges and Gilbert, though, mean nothing to him.

"Who are they?" he asks.

Almost nothing lives here

About 60 miles to the south of Timbuktu in central Mali, a dozen vultures stand at attention. One of the birds, acting like a drill sergeant, paces back and forth as if dispensing the day's orders. Its piercing squawk sends shivers up the spine.

Vultures reign free here. Whenever a camel or donkey or mangy dog succumbs to the oppressive heat, the birds pounce on the carcass. Vulture heaven is hell for everything else. The landscape is barren and depressing. It is natures deathbed. Save for a few passing tribesmen, their camels and slaves, few things live here. This is not Isak Dinesens Africa of romance and adventure or the Africa of lush jungles where Dian Fossey frolicked with mountain gorillas.

Much of the core of West Africa is a wasteland. From the mountains of Chad to the Atlantic Ocean in Senegal, a vast, depressing nothingness -- at some points 300 miles wide -- stretches as far as New York is from San Francisco.

This is where hurricanes are born

It is here, in one of the driest places on Earth, that nature sows the seeds for one of the worlds wettest natural phenomena -- the Atlantic hurricane.

Born as sultry summer thunderstorms that roller-coaster across Africa, these unpredictable weather systems sometimes turn into tropical depressions when they mix with the warm waters of the Atlantic.

Weeks later, if a depression blooms into a hurricane, what sprouts here in Africa turns into an ugly, destructive monster that can threaten the Caribbean, Florida and the entire U.S. eastern seaboard.

From this land of death come natural-born killers that later will be tracked by aerial reconnaissance and satellites. Nearly every infamous Atlantic hurricane in the past century can be traced to West Africa. In this massive incubator, where temperatures hover at 120 degrees, clues are found as to where hurricanes get their strength and awesome power.

Searing heat provides fuel

Weather legends spin a tale that a butterfly flapping its wings can jump-start a climatic chain of events that culminates in the roaring blast of a hurricane.

But nature is far more complex and rarely so predictable. What weather watchers know is that the searing heat of West Africa fuels storms as vapors rise from the dusty ground into the upper atmosphere.

There this hot, dusty air meets cooler ripples of wind descending from the volcanic Tibesti Mountains of Chad. That collision forms thunderclouds, which sometimes mushroom into violent weather systems that draw the attention of American meteorologists who monitor satellite images half a world away.

Subtle changes here affect Americas

Almost everything that happens in rural West Africa -- subtle changes in climate, human activity that improves or degrades the landscape, famines, droughts -- is a factor in whether the Americas will be battered by killer storms.

To understand Africa's connection to South Florida, take a rag to your car window on a humid afternoon. In a recent study at the University of Miami, sand from African deserts made up more than half the dust particles floating over Miami. That beige glaze on your windshield didnt come from our beaches but from the sprawling Sahara outside Timbuktu.

The intercontinental tropical connection comes of age in the vast region known as the Sahel -- or shore -- so named thousands of years ago because the sawgrass here was once tall enough to make the Everglades jealous.

The land is dying

Game roamed the land for thousands of years. Up until 30 years ago, tribes hunted with spears and bows and arrows. Today, your best chance of seeing a lion in the Sahel is at the zoo in Niamey, the capital of Niger.

There is little left in the Sahel for the animals to eat, and little left for people to hunt. If not for a few scattered wells and the meandering, cappuccino-colored Niger River, which reeks with pollution, there wouldnt be any water. The few remaining trees are dormant, their petrified skeletons resembling sad scarecrows. The trunks have eroded into boulders built by termites as monuments to the land's demise.

The soil is hard and scorched, its protective layer of nutrition stripped by thousands of years of weather, changes in global climate and greed.

In time, the sands of the advancing Sahara will construct dunes over much of the Sahel, as they already have to the north. Anything of nourishment is unlikely to ever grow here again. The process, known as desertification, is the earth's denouement.

West Africa is a gigantic outdoor morgue: Researchers have spent the past 20 years picking through it like a garbage dump, detailing its alarming autopsy and spreading the bad news of its desertification, its demise.

Stripped of its dignity and beauty, the Sahel now attracts less rain in a year than South Florida gets in half a summer's month. That's barely enough water in one place to fill a hot tub. But when it does rain, it pours, triggering floods because the ground is too hard to absorb the water.

Stand in the Sahel on a steamy summer's day, and you are apt to see a rainstorm develop. The dust that had been simmering in the daytime heat starts dancing, small swirls at first, then intense twirling spins that sweep across the landscape. Overhead, columns of clouds as tall as skyscrapers swell from the fueling dust formations until they burst into gushes of rainwater.

It seems to defy logic: How can something so powerful form out of a land of nothing?

Tribes just struggle to survive

Mark Berryman is no weatherman. But he has seen plenty of these storms in the past three years.

Berryman, 23, a surfer boy from Southern California, is in the Peace Corps. He has spent so much time living with the Dogon -- a people whose traditions owe their genesis to a supposed far-off star -- that he speaks their language and even thinks like the Dogon.

"It's simple: The Earth is a person, and when it gets hot, it needs to cool itself off," he says in explaining the desert storms.

Berryman spends much of his time scurrying up and down the cliffs at the southern edge of the Sahel, where the bones of Dogon ancestors are scattered in caves. He lives in a Dogon village, Fombori, on the edge of stone bluffs about 100 miles south of Timbuktu.

The Dogon believe that visitors from space came to Earth long ago and taught the tribe about astronomy. They maintain mythological ties to planets and the star Emme Ya, whose existence has yet to be proved by Western scientists.

Dogon mythology is often acted out in cult ceremonies involving stern-looking masks. Its mysterious ways are detailed in characters carved into the doors of grain silos that are the rage of Western art collectors.

Berryman is helping the Dogon construct a museum to trace its 10 centuries of history. In the process of learning the tribe's ways, he has also become Dogonized.

He has no e-mail, no telephone and no electricity in his hut. A good day is when he receives a letter from his family in the Sunday postal run. The things he misses most about home are ice-cold beer and surfer magazines.

Like the Dogon, Berryman's main concerns are basic, but also immediate.

When drought plagued the Sahel in the '70s and '80s, some Dogon men couldn't take the shame and killed themselves because they were unable to provide for their starving families.

With the land bone-dry, some men have left for jobs in the cities, leading to a steady erosion of Dogon culture and customs. Today, a half million Dogon are scattered over an area about 200 by 300 miles in southern Mali.

As the Dogon look to the sky, they wonder what is up with the gods. Recent summers have brought more rain and more tempestuous storms. Something weird is going on, they say.

"You see the deep anger in the storms," says Berryman, who sleeps on the roof of his house to escape the summer heat but often awakes to pelting rain. "They come out of nowhere and hit with a boom. It's hard to figure, but it's awesome to watch.

Berryman has no inkling that what he witnesses sometimes goes way beyond him, tumbling all the way across Africa, gathering steam in the Atlantic Ocean and then striking the Americas with a deadly force. He looks at his visitors as if they have come from another planet.

"Florida, eh?" he asks suspiciously. "What are you doing way out here?"

Africa's storms are our storms

After a three-day drive east from Dogon country, you arrive at the village of Guidan Kata in southern Niger. Dozens of men come out of their mud huts in greeting. "Welcome, welcome," the men say as they stand in a line to shake your hand. Then they sit on the ground cross-legged and look at you.

What do you say to people who do not know what day it is, let alone the month or year? How do you explain that you came halfway across the world to talk about the weather? How do you tell them that their storms could turn into our storms?

Luckily, after some minutes of silent discomfort, the chief arrives. The men leap to their feet, then kneel in supplication to kiss the hand of the Hausa chief.

The chief, a short guy named Sani Mayana, smiles. He is wearing a sky-blue robe and is decked out in gold cuff links and a gold Rolex that jangles because it is too big for his regal wrist.

Behind him looms a bodyguard, a towering man who does not smile and walks in the chiefs footsteps flicking a little whip that sends a clear message: Mess with the chief and I will whup you.

The duo bears a striking resemblance to the actors Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall, who spoofed African royalty in the movie Coming to America. The chief has not heard of the actors.

"Eddie?" the chief asks, trying to place the name.

Mayana is the chief because his father was the chief and, before him, so was his grandfather. He is one of the best-educated men in these parts, having studied the Koran at a nearby Islamic school.

Mayana oversees 33 villages, where people of the Hausa tribe have lived since the 11th century. To the millions of diverse, simple tribesmen who struggle every day to make it in the Sahel, the elements are their major enemies.

Losing the battle with the land

For nearly 1,000 years the Hausa have survived holy wars, civil conflicts, purges, hunger, tyrants and military dictators. But Mayana says his people may be closer to extinction than ever before.

"We are losing the battle with the land," he says sadly.

The Hausa are traders and workers of the land. More than 65 million are scattered throughout Africa.

Many of the Hausa are Muslims. Most wear traditional striped pillbox skullcaps. They were influenced -- as most Sahel inhabitants were -- by Arabic explorers centuries ago. Their language is a combination of Arabic and Hebrew. One of the more interesting tourist sites in the Sahel features towering mosques made of mud centuries ago.

The distinctive feature of the Hausa is a crescent-shaped scar on the left side of the face. It is an imprint carved at infancy, usually by an elder wielding a sharp knife or red-hot needles in a tribal ritual of acceptance. They live in huts with pitched roofs that resemble the Kremlins onion domes and topped with little Russianlike spires made of straw.

Mayana's people generally don't have a lot of fun. Save for an occasional visit from a drummer in a nearby village, a wrestling match between a couple of locals or the sacrificing of a goat during a baby-naming ceremony, there's little entertainment here.

The Hausa are not known for wearing colorful garb or doing tribal jigs. They wear mostly worn shorts, torn wraparound skirts and T-shirts that probably wouldn't make it to a Salvation Army thrift store.

Mayana, 43, has ruled for only three years. He has three wives and 11 children. He spends hours every day worrying about the future of his family and his people. His simple calculations spell disaster.

"You see there is a rapid increase in population and a reduction in farming land," he says through an interpreter.

"That means more people have less food."

The chief wishes he had a horse so he could visit his people more often. From reports that filter in to him, he knows they are in a bad way. Mayana has watched the steady demise of his surroundings for his entire life. His ancestors tell a story that scientists have proved to be true.

Thousands of years ago, the Sahel's lush landscape began to die. Maybe it was caused by a slight tilting of Earth, as some scientists theorize. Or maybe the planet underwent some atmospheric warming, as other scientists believe. Or maybe the spirits took revenge for some perceived insolence, as some local soothsayers believe. Or maybe it's just the lousy way things are, as many Africans have concluded.

Land damaged by human mistakes

Mayana knows that the Hausa didn't help things. Their herds moved in a southward migration, consuming every last bit of vegetation. Their methods of farming sucked the life right out of the ground and left many areas incapable of growing even weeds.

West Africans also cut down trees, using the wood to make charcoal to sell to Africans in big cities as cooking and heating fuel. Even today the rape of the few remaining trees continues. Donkey carts laden with chopped wood crisscross the countryside.

"What can we do?" says a man in a town nicknamed "Charcoal City," because firewood is sold there in roadside bundles. "We need the money, people need the charcoal. After we cut down all of the trees, we will find something else to do, some other way to live."

For the Hausa in this village on the Nigerian border, their shortsightedness ended about five years ago when they ran out of trees to cut and two decades of prolonged drought left them with soil so parched it was hard enough to break a hoe in two.

Fighting back

Village leaders asked for help from CARE, one of several charities working to prevent famine in the Sahel and to keep villages from being consumed by the elements.

CARE workers taught villagers the slash-and-burn method of farming, using the torched stubble of plants to revitalize the soil. They showed them how to build tiny berms around their seed plantings to protect them from wind and erosion.

The sound of women pounding millet is sweet music to Mayanas ears. Millet -- a finger-sized grain that can be ground and pummeled -- grows well in the harsh soil. It tastes awful but is a nutritious staple of life used in making cereals, cakes and even a crude brew.

CARE workers also taught the Hausa to conserve and cherish water. Villagers provided the labor to build a dam this summer to catch and store rainwater. CARE provided more than $100,000 in equipment and materials.

Throughout the Sahel, CARE and other aid groups have planted millions of trees that give off moisture and coax rainfall from the humid sky. The emerging trees, along with favorable wind flows in the upper atmosphere, may have helped make the past five rainy seasons unusually bountiful in the Sahel.

Thousands of aid workers and the people of the Sahel have a dream, well, more like a faint hope: Someday the Sahel will be lush again and filled with rows of trees, green grass, abundant crops, steady rains, fattening cattle and well-fed tribesmen.

Destruction may be inevitable

Critics -- a variety of scientists, nutrition experts, environmentalists and social workers -- scoff that such dreams are delusional. Why prop people up with handouts and educated triage when the land will ultimately devour them? And what happens when the international largess runs out?

The naysayers can come across as cruel. Their blunt social Darwinism highlights an elemental rule of life in the global village: When the neighborhood becomes uninhabitable, it's time to move on.

Mayana fidgets uneasily at that thought. His people are the Sahel. How can they move to someplace they do not know?

For the time being, Mayana dismisses such talk. He thanks CARE for the aid and Allah for the blessing of extra rain in recent years. He doesn't know what a curse that rain was to the Caribbean and Central America, what tragedy the storms here spawned there.

He hasn't seen the pictures of mudslides in Nicaragua and Honduras, the faces of the more than 10,000 people who died in Hurricane Mitch two years ago. He knows nothing of the village of Polo in the Dominican Republic that was battered by Hurricane Georges.

Mayana is a wise man, a student of the holy books and a trusted leader. Yet he can't understand what his village has to do with one in Honduras.

"We don't have that much rain," he says. "How can so little rain make so much rain somewhere else?"

Tracking the storms

The most sophisticated weather station in West Africa is in a cramped room in a beat-up building in Niamey, the capital of Niger. Meteorologists look at the latest satellite pictures on computers to follow a thunderstorm across the Sahel.

Funded by 53 African nations, this consortium gathers information and data about African weather patterns. The meteorologists take reports from primitive weather stations stretched across thousands of miles and try to identify patterns of storm conduct.

What they are learning is vital information to South Floridians. Only in recent years, with the help of researchers in the United States, have African forecasters begun tracing the culprit that eventually spawns Atlantic hurricanes: the run-of-the-mill African thunderstorm.

Albert Owino, one of the chief meteorologists, stands in front of a map of West Africa. Like a detective detailing the M.O. of a crook, Owino points to the map and explains where natures break-in usually occurs.

The storms form almost shyly just west of the mountains of Chad, aided by the East African jet stream. Their behavior is erratic until they become sandwiched between flows of cold and warm air pushing down from the Sahara in the north and up from the sea off Ghana in the south.

Those currents energize the storms and guide them as they buzz-saw across the barren Sahel at latitudes between 10 and 20 degrees.

Depending on the terrain -- and how warm it is -- the storms either live or die.

Like cat burglars, the storms sometimes rest and hide in the mornings only to rise in the heat of the broiling afternoon sun. Often they are too tiny to be picked up by satellites but then suddenly appear on the screen as throbbing globs of might.

After one storm opens the floodgates, a series of storms seems to follow. In any given summer as many as 100 big ones traverse the Sahel before plopping into the Atlantic off Senegal, some 2,500 miles away.

Most die over the ocean. But a dozen or so every year rise up into the legends of hurricane lore.

Which storms will become hurricanes?

Are there clues as to which thunderstorms will later turn into hurricanes?

"We don't know," Owino says. "No one has followed a storm step by step and watched it turn into a hurricane. We are not that sophisticated yet."

By combing through decades of records, however, hurricane experts in the United States have alerted African meteorologists to a disturbing pattern that has held solid through more than a century of data collecting.

In years of more rain in the Sahel, there have been not only more hurricanes but more powerful ones and more strikes on the United States. In years when Africans are enduring drought, the United States can feel the most secure. If someday the Sahel begins to resemble a Kansas prairie or becomes as swampy as the Everglades, Americans would have summers of big trouble.

Maybe that is the way it was tens of thousands of years ago. Scientists have no sure way of knowing. But based on accounts from early explorers like Columbus, hurricanes were routine obstacles in voyages of discovery. The rainfall connection is one of many puzzling aspects of hurricanes that scientists are investigating.

But on this fickle Earth, one man's bad luck is another's fortune. Will there come a day when a television weatherman in South Florida will be able to point to precise images from the Sahel and warn viewers that the next big hurricane is being born before their eyes?

"It is only a matter of time," Owino says.

Not that it will matter much, he adds. Floridians already have ample warning as hurricanes approach, and there's not much they can do but board up, move to a shelter or evacuate their neighborhood.

"You can't stop weather even if you know it is coming," he says. "So what can you do?"

Nature always wins

In Timbuktu, people know there is no sense in trying to outfox nature. It always wins. The Sahara is devouring Timbuktu, covering the streets ankle-deep in sand and turning houses into sand dunes. Sand is everywhere: There are even grains of it in the bread, which is one of the few things in Timbuktu worth bragging about.

If you think there is any hope for the Sahel, that maybe with the help of man and God it can become green again, then a visit to Timbuktu will alter that thinking. Not that getting there is easy. Its a days off-road drive from the nearest major artery, and much of that time spent slip-sliding over dunes in a four-wheel-drive vehicle.

For thousands of years Timbuktu was at the southern edge of the Sahara, a trading outpost for everything from gold to ostrich feathers. It was the gateway to the lush plains of Africa and a welcome relief from the desert that stretches thousands of miles north to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

Until 25 years ago, a river tributary ran through the center of town. It dried up during a drought. Today it is wrong to say that Timbuktu is in the Sahel, even though it says so on the map. The Sahara owns the place now. Timbuktu looks like Fargo in winter, only with sand.

Forced to surrender

The Tuareg -- fierce fighters and resourceful nomadic herdsmen are grudgingly surrendering to the Sahara. After famine drove them into the city during the past 15 years, they rebelled.

Proud of their Caucasian roots, the Tuareg have always thought they were superior to the darker races in Mali. Losing their fight with nature, they decided to take out their frustrations on the government of Mali.

If they couldn't be free from the Sahara, at least they would be free from their darker-skinned neighbors, the Tuareg reasoned. For more a decade, until two years ago, they fought a civil war. Thousands died on both sides before a truce in the mid-1990s. Houloulon Ag Mohameed led Tuareg fighters in battle. Now he works for charity agencies directing the fight for survival against the Sahara.

The desert is winning hands down, he says. To endure, townsfolk -- helped by donations from relief groups -- have planted trees and erected barriers of high grass on the dunes to prevent sand from sweeping into Timbuktu.

"It helps only a little bit," Mohameed says, adding that battling the desert is more difficult than dodging federal soldiers. The sand fight is a hard, tough fight. I am worried."

As he talks, workers on the roof of his house gather sand in buckets and dump it on the street. The roof is in danger of collapsing under the accumulating sand.

Not adapting well

The Tuareg -- known as the blue men of the desert because of their indigo-colored robes and the veils they wear to keep the sand at bay -- are not adapting well. They would prefer to live in the desert, herding cattle and growing crops as they have for centuries.

Instead, many of them crowd into tents on the edge of town where they survive on food from relief agencies.

Some Tuareg continue to wage the civil war from hideouts in the desert. They finance their cause by stealing four-wheel-drive vehicles, then selling them after leaving passengers stranded in the desert with their luggage and offering them a warm beer for good luck.

On the fringe of Timbuktu, a few Tuareg women try to make it by legitimate means. They have formed a small business making fences to keep sand out of houses and tent camps.

"We have to do something to try and survive, otherwise we will starve," says Fatima Bela Mohameed, a mother of 11.

Sadly, they hadn't sold a thing after a few months in business. But the Sahara continues to do the women's marketing for them by constructing dunes as big as pyramids and making their fences a necessity.

Timbuktu's sorry state only worsens in the summer when the temperature can reach 130 degrees at high noon and wicked sandstorms batter the town.

Residents sit listlessly in the broiling sun, their limbs cooking in the sand like chops of mutton in a clay pot.

Explaining nature's assault

Mouhamed Ag Nola, a Muslim cleric, has chronicled the towns demise. He talks to Allah, consults the spirits and studies the stars, looking for reasons to explain natures assault.

At 78, Ag Nola is a revered figure. Visitors arrive bearing gifts of kola nuts, mint tea and sugar to sweeten it. Ag Nola does not talk directly to his guests but speaks through underlings who relay his thoughts.

For decades Ag Nola has written down observations about the weather. He remembers long ago when the rains were steady and heavy. Now, like most in Timbuktu, he is appalled at how bitter the storms have become, how they turn the skies red, lash the landscape and its people and punish instead of nourish.

"The world is different than it was," he says as his underlings nod knowingly. The Tuareg believe that everyone has a spiritual guide who directs them. Ag Nola is asked where his visitors from Florida can go to learn more about Africa's connection to Atlantic hurricanes.

Ag Nola suggests a trip to the west, to the ocean, where the land bids adieu to nature's fury and the seas adopt and feed it.

Can it be any worse there?

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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