Gov’t-Funded Study Claims Global Warming Expanded Sahara Desert — There’s Just One Problem

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Michael Bastasch Contributor
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Hold the phone, a Thursday-released government-funded study claimed man-made global warming is contributing to the Sahara desert’s expansion! Well, that’s not exactly what they found.

The University of Maryland researchers’s study posited the Sahara Desert has expanded about 10 percent since 1920 supposedly due to a combination of a natural and human-caused forces.

However, the human-caused part has been featured prominently in news coverage of the study, which the National Science Foundation funded. The “world’s largest desert has grown even larger due to climate change,” the U.K. Independent warned.

The Washington Post went with the less alarmist headline: “The Sahara is growing, thanks in part to climate change” — though even that toned-down headline seems to overstate the study’s findings.

National Science Foundation’s press release on the study’s results also emphasized the global warming angle. “Trends in Africa of hot summers getting hotter and rainy seasons drying out are linked with factors that include increasing greenhouse gases and aerosols in the atmosphere,” NSF Program Director Ming Cai said.

“These trends have a devastating effect on the lives of African people, who depend on agriculture-based economies,” Cai said in the press release, which also suggests other deserts could be growing for similar reasons.

The study relied on rainfall trends to “infer” desert expansion of contraction in North Africa. The Sahara went through periods of contraction and expansion, and, in fact, the desert regularly changes size with the seasons, researchers estimated.

NOW WATCH why global warming is overblown:

But there is a more detailed summary of the study’s findings buried at the bottom of NSF’s press release. It turns out researchers attributed two-thirds of the Sahara’s growth since 1920 to “natural climate cycles” that affect rainfall in the Sahara and Sahel regions.

That’s nothing knew. Meteorologists have long associated the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO) with North Africa’s severe hurricane activity and changes in its rainfall patterns.

One-third of the Sahara’s growth can be attributed to man-made global warming, but there’s a big caveat, the study’s authors said. “Longer climate records that extend across several climate cycles are needed to reach definitive conclusions,” the release noted.

Ultimately, it is not a “definitive conclusion” for them to attribute the one-third of the Sahara desert’s 10 percent expansion.

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