Professor Richard Washington briefs the Prime Minister of Chad on the consequences of the world's largest dust storm on the planet Professor Richard Washington briefs the Prime Minister of Chad on the consequences of the world's largest dust storm on the planet

Professor Richard Washington briefs the Prime Minister of Chad
(Images: www.gouvernementdutchad.org)

Professor Richard Washington briefs the Prime Minister of Chad on the consequences of the world's largest dust storm on the planet.

The Bodélé Depression in northern Chad is the world's largest single source of dust storms. Nine years ago, Prof. Richard Washington and Dr Sebastian Engelstaedter, along with researchers from UCL and Birkbeck, were the first to recover data on characteristics of the winds and dust from the basin. In the process they mapped a previously unknown wind, the Bodélé Low Level Jet which is key to the emission and established that the dust takes about 10 days to reach the Amazon basin from Chad. Many of the 26 or so papers that have emerged from this work, which was supported by a 12 000 grant from the Royal Geographical Society, have become classics in the literature with total citations close to 1000.

In March 2014, Richard Washington along with two other members of the original expedition from 2005, received an invitation from the President of Chad to brief government ministers on the phenomenon of the Bodélé dust. Richard had the opportunity to brief the Prime Minister of Chad, Excellence M. Kalzeube Payimi Deubet, on the science and its consequences for the planet. In an additional evening event, attended by Ambassadors of many countries, donor agencies as well as a string of government ministers (including Environment, Economics, Infrastructure, Agriculture), the science behind the Bodélé research was showcased.

In addition to research on the Bodélé dust source, Richard Washington is Principal Investigator of two large NERC funded projects (exceeding 5m in total), namely Fennec - The Saharan Climate System and Dust Observations for Models. The Fennec project has focused on the dust sources of the western and central Sahara which are much more complicated than the Bodélé dust because they are spread-out across the expanse of the Sahara and result from many different atmospheric systems. Progress in understanding these sources has been made following the deployment of the specialist UK atmospheric research aircraft (BAe-146) for 200 hours over the summertime atmosphere of the Sahara. The aircraft was used to fly at low level (50m) over the Saharan surface. To supplement the aircraft observations, some 30 tons of surface-based equipment was deployed in the central Sahara, much of it on the Mali-Algerian border 600km from the nearest roads. The data emerging from Fennec is at last leading to a clearer understanding of the Saharan atmosphere. Dr Sebastian Engelstaedter, Dr Ian Ashpole and Christopher Allen, postdocs and postgraduates based in SoGE, all work with Richard on the Fennec data. A film of Fennec science was recently shown on European and American Television as one part of the 'Big Science Adventures' series on Tipping Points in the Earth System.

African climate research in the School of Geography and the Environment covers more than dust storms. The School has a specialist capability in African climate science and is probably the largest concentration of expertise in the UK. Prof. Richard Washington, Dr Rachel James and Helen Pearce have collectively produced a decade of research on how climate models simulate future rainfall changes. The focus has been on East and West Africa and the Congo basin. A new impetus to this work has come from the Met Office Academic Partnership whereby Oxford has joined three other UK universities in coordinated research. African climate is one of the themes of the Oxford partnership. All this research provides a great opportunity to undergraduates, many of whom undertake their dissertations on African climate problems. In 2014, undergraduate dissertations included analysis of the latest IPCC climate models over the Sahara, the Congo and southern Africa. The work enables undergraduates to experience research with an operational team and to acquire a flavour for how science works. Two of the undergraduates concerned have been accepted onto the Doctoral programme and so the lineage of African climate work is set to continue.