February 25, 2015
NASA Images Explain How Sand From The Sahara Is Crucial To The Amazon Rainforest

Remember in Jurassic Park when Dr. Ian Malcolm (played by Jeff Goldblum) let a drop of water slide over the hand of Dr. Ellie Satler (Laura Dern)? "A butterfly can flap its wings in Peking and in Central Park you get rain instead of sunshine." Malcolm was referring to Chaos Theory - or the Butterfly Effect. It's the idea that something on one side of the world - no matter how minor - can have a significant effect on the other side of the world.

Some new NASA satellite images seem to have brought more credence than ever to that theory, though the Sahara Desert wouldn't be referred to as insignficant by any stretch of the imagination, (at over 3 million square miles, it's almost the size of the continental United States). The space agency was interested in determining just how sand blown from the Sahara Desert in Africa ends up helping the rainforests in the Amazon to grow.

Sounds crazy, right?

Turns out it's not. The amount of dust that gets kicked up by the wind and blown into the atmosphere is staggering.

The satellite data compiled by NASA examined just how much Saharan dust gets blown to the Amazon via three different dimensions. As a result, the scientists - led by atmospheric scientist and lead study author, Hongbin Yu - determined that phosphorous gets carried along with the dust across the ocean to South America.

Phosphorous is a mineral that is essential for optimum plant growth. The mineral is commonly found in most chemical fertilizers.

Perhaps you can see where this is going now? There is an enormous, ancient dry lake bed in the Sahara Desert called the Bodele Depression. Along with the dust, phosphorous is scooped up from this lake bed, drifted across the ocean, and settled in South America, giving the Amazon rainforest its ability to grow so large.

According to NASA scientists, their research published in the February 24th issue of Geophysical Research Letters determined that an estimated 22,000 tons of phosphorous from the Sahara Desert reaches the Amazon rainforest every year along with 182 million tons of dust. What's interesting is that the NASA report states that the amount of phosphorous that reaches the Amazon rainforest from the Sahara desert is equal to the amount of phosphorous that is lost in South America due to rain and flooding every year. The Sahara, in effect, keeps the phosphorous levels in the rainforest consistent despite the nature of the rainforest itself, which is to wash it all away.

This is the first time ever that scientists have been able to quantify exactly how much dust is carried from the Sahara desert by the wind, what it contains, and where it goes.

This video released by NASA explains the Sahara/Amazon dust project.

[Photos by David McNew and Brent Stirton via Getty Images]