In 2008, Richard Washington, Professor of Climate Science at the School of Geography and the Environment, proposed a multi-million NERC Consortium project called ‘Fennec – The Saharan Climate System’ to be led by Oxford. NERC (the Natural Environment Research Council) agreed to fund the project. Its observational phase has now come to a close, and the team has released a video documenting their adventures in the field. Richard Washington reflects on the experience:
'One of the misfortunes of being a modern climate scientist is that much of the pioneering opportunity to find out how the atmosphere works in its average, or basic state, has passed us by. That was a task that fell to a lucky few in grand decades of discovery in the early half of the twentieth century. Or so I thought. But it turns out that there are some parts of the world, with climates too extreme for human habitation, about which our knowledge is no more than incredibly sketchy. One such region is the central Sahara. And when it comes to this magnificent desert, the climate is not just extreme. Its influence is felt at great distances from the core of the desert. The central Sahara is the world’s largest source of mineral aerosols. It has the deepest boundary layer on the planet – often 5 km or more. The Saharan Heat Low (a vast area of low pressure) is a vital component of the West African Monsoon – on which millions of people depend for life-giving rain. Given how connected the climate system has proven to be, the Sahara is not a part of the world we can afford to know little about.
Fennec has been an ambitious project. Posed as a large-scale, international, multi-institutional, multi-platform, observational, modelling and satellite programme, Fennec promised to recover the first real meteorological observations from the remote Sahara – in the hottest months of the year. It has succeeded against all odds. Working in the remote desert with research sites 1000 km from the nearest dirt road was always going to be hard given the challenges of distance, heat and aridity. We also had to work around the insurgencies in the Sahara – now making mainstream news, but for the last three years the reason we had to suppress every detail of the project beyond the immediate Fennec circle. Indeed it is hard to believe that just seven months ago we were flying a research aircraft at 150 feet about the desert surface over northern Mali!
This film is a brief summary of some of the adventures in the observational phase of Fennec. The success of the project is due to many colleagues at universities in the UK and France who were determined to make the most of the extraordinary opportunity we have had. It is also due to the tireless efforts of scientists and engineers in the National Met Services of Algeria and Mauritania. In no small way we acknowledge the teams at NERC, FAAM, Avalon, Direct Flight and the Met Office who trusted us with the research aircraft in this exacting environment. The sadness and relief when the final flight brought the dust-ridden aircraft home were equal.'