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Wind’s Mystery and Meaning
The story of Hurricane Ivan: It began, as these things so often do, long ago and far, far away. Long ago, at least, in the reckoning of weathermen, and far away at least as seen from the Caribbean and the east coast of North America, where the storm’s full fury would in due time be unleashed. In the course of its tumultuous and destructive life, the cyclone they came to call Ivan would exemplify all the perilous uncertainties and complex patterns of global climatology (and exaggerate my own rather paranoid view of hard weather), but its beginning was hidden, even secretive, and could only be seen in rueful hindsight.
In the spring of 2004, it rained in Darfur, the Sudanese hellhole wracked by decades of civil war. Darfur is on the southeastern fringes of the endless emptiness of the Sahara, and its soil, beaten down from too many cattle and too many goats over too many years of drought, couldn’t hold the water. It pooled and then gathered in little muddy torrents that swept away the scattered huts of the countryside. A few days before, the refugees in their grim camps had been dying of thirst–an ostrich egg of water having to do for a family for a whole day–but were now forced to scramble to keep their pathetic scraps of food and their meager possessions from washing away. They were still starving, though now sodden and burdened with cholera and dysentery in addition to their other miseries.
All along the Sahel, the southern fringes of the Sahara, the rains came. Lake Chad, which had been shrinking for decades, stopped shrinking briefly, andthe remaining hippo channels winding through the papyrus and water hyacinths filled up. The dusty plains north of Kano, the Nigerian trading city, looked lush for the first time in fifteen years. Outside fabled Timbuktu the ground took on a shiny green sheen, before the goats in their insatiable hunger nibbled the new plants down to a stubble, then trampled the residue into the mud. In Niger, Mali, even in ever-arid Mauritania, the rains fell for the first time in a decade. Not enough, really, to unparch the desert, but more than usual.
No one in the Sahel knew why it was raining, or, except for a few aid agencies, cared; they were just grateful the water was there. In the outside world hardly anybody paid much attention. There were a few exceptions–the paranoid actuaries for the giant insurance company Munich Re, for example, who are paid to worry, and a few analysts in hurricane centers across the Atlantic, who were wrestling with the complex causative cycles of violent weather–but more people should have been concerned than that, for they were about to get a brutal lesson in the interconnectedness of natural systems. Who would have thought that, say, a rural tavern in Pennsylvania would be threatened by a storm-born flood that was linked in complicated ways to the ending of a drought half a world away?