The Biology of Human Survival: Life and Death in Extreme Environments

By Claude A. Piantadosi | Go to book overview

8
Endless Oceans of Sand

Endless Oceans of Sand

Despite the tropical origin of human beings, the hot, dry deserts of the world are no place for ill-prepared adventurers. Through the centuries thousands of ill-fated explorers have underestimated the amount of water required for long desert treks. This miscalculation has led to many deaths by dehydration. Slightly more fortunate sojourners have stumbled across the hot sands for days only to find water in the nick of time or to be saved from certain death by hardy rescuers. The environment of the arid desert is indeed formidable.

The world's largest desert, the Sahara, covers one-third of the African continent, an area the size of the United States (see Figure 8.1). Its temperatures range from 130°F during the day to 20°F at night. Rainfall averages only three to five inches and in the driest areas may be as little as one-sixteenth of an inch a year. Desertification of the Sahara has been one of the most dramatic climatic events since the end of the last Ice Age, some 10,000 years ago. As recently as 3000 B.C.E. much of the region was still arable, but the size of the Sahara continues to expand today.

Failure to carry sufficient water into deserts is an obvious mistake, but water is so scarce that loss of transportation can be equally perilous. The breakdown of one's only vehicle in the remote Sahara may be lethal because the amount of water that can be carried is not sufficient to walk out of the desert (see Table 8.1) or to the next oasis, which may be 100 miles away. This problem reemphasizes the

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