Geographic Imaginations and the Volatile Sahara Desert

Recent events in Mali and Algeria have focused attention on the world’s biggest desert. Western intelligence agencies have long been concerned about terrorists and other rogue groups utilizing the vast, barren expanses of the Sahara. In many outsiders’ imaginations, the great desert is primarily a sea of seductive, rippling sand dunes.

Saharan Desert Sand Dunes

Though this is a familiar Sahara Desert landscape for many outsiders, only about 20 percent of the desert looks like this. Photo credit: Brandon Prince (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

This tourist-friendly landscape is characteristic of North Africa’s drylands, but only in part. Much more common is a rocky landscape strewn with scrub vegetation, and marked with scattered oases.

The Sahara Desert in Algeria

A rocky Saharan landscape in Algeria is punctuated by a desert oasis. Photo credit: Cernavoda (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

Saharan Desert Scrub

Scrub vegetation in the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Photo credit: bobrayner (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

These more characteristic landscapes of gravel and undulating terrain share much in common with parts of Afghanistan, although that Central Asian state is far more rugged.

As the world grapples with the effects of state failure, climate change, and other challenges in the Sahara and Sahel regions of Africa, it is helpful to have a more accurate geographic imagination about these lands.

Timbuktu, Mali

The culturally important city of Timbuktu, Mali lies on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, along the Niger River. Photo credit: emilio labrador (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

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