The Sahara desert is one of the harshest, most inhospitable places on the planet, covering much of North Africa in some 3.6 million square miles of rock and windswept dunes. But it wasn’t always so desolate and parched. Primitive rock paintings and fossils excavated from the region suggest that the Sahara was once a relatively verdant oasis, where human settlements and a diversity of plants and animals thrived.
Now researchers at MIT have analyzed dust deposited off the coast of west Africa over the the last 240,000 years, and found that the Sahara, and North Africa in general, has swung between wet and dry climates every 20,000 years. They say that this climatic pendulum is mainly driven by changes to the Earth’s axis as the planet orbits the sun, which in turn affect the distribution of sunlight between seasons — every 20,000 years, the Earth swings from more sunlight in summer to less, and back again.