Thursday, July 26, 2007

The mythical lake beneath Darfur

A news article in Nature mercifully explains the reality behind these crazy new stories about a "lake" underneath Darfur.

It is not a lake. Despite what was reported last week, nobody is going to drill down a few metres under the sand and find a massive body of freshwater. What the Boston University scientists found, using ground-penetrating satellite observations, was essentially an underground depression that signifies that a body of water likely existed underneath northern Sudan at sometime in the past.

Every aspect of the publicity of this story was disturbing.

First, the press release from Boston University was misleading, at best. It should have been explicit, right up front, that the scientists discovered a dry ancient lake bed beneath the sands, and hope that water from that lake might still be found in the adjoining rock.

From Nature:

The media's portrayal of a lake that actually contains water now stems from the way the Boston group presented its claims, says Mohamed Abubuker, an official at the Ministry of Irrigation and Water Resources in Khartoum. "The general public in Sudan, and even some very high-ranking officials, came to believe that what has been discovered is literally a lake — perhaps even with fish in it," he says. "The way El-Baz presented his efforts helped consolidate this misconception. It was like a political rally for a presidency run-up rather than
a scientific portrayal of facts."

El-Baz contests this allegation. "It is incomprehensible for anyone to think it is a physical lake," he says, adding that he consistently made it clear that his argument was that the lake's water would have seeped through the sandstone substrate to accumulate as groundwater, and that drilling the sandstone under and around the ancient lake could yield fresh water.

Even the coverage and Sudanese response is all an honest misunderstanding, this is what happens publicity of science trumps the science itself. It is clear from the strong negative reaction from other geologists and scientists with expertise on the region that there are legitimate concerns about the study's conclusions:

Geologists argue that the rocks beneath and around the ancient lake are no more likely to hold water than those elsewhere in the Nubian aquifer. "Nearly everywhere it is present in Egypt the Nubian sandstone is water-bearing, so it is a matter of simple common sense that it would be the first place to look for significant groundwater reserves in Sudan," says Neil Sturchio, a geologist at the University of Illinois in Chicago, who describes the lake story as "hype".

There may actually be less chance of finding substantial water in the lake vicinity in northern Darfur than elsewhere on the aquifer. Although the porous, water-retaining sandstone aquifer is up to 3,500 metres thick at its northern fringes in Egypt, it thins to just a few hundred metres in northern Darfur, its southernmost reach.

Second, the press release begat these buoyant but almost comically naive stories about science saving Darfur. Even if Lake Superior was discovered five metres below the surface, it would not alone "bring peace" to the region. As was discussed here last week, the drying of the Sahel helped set the climate, there's a reason that word has dual meanings, for the current conflict. But it is not simple cause and effect. Opening a faucet won't end things tomorrow.

Is this merely a series of mis-communications? Is it a case of well-meaning people hoping to help an embattled part of the world? Or it it a case of scientists seeking publicity and of a hyperactive media not properly vetting stories? You tell me.

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