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France's Failed Attempt to Turn the Sahara Desert into a Fertile Sea
Jules Verne used the failed project as inspiration for his last adventure novel
In 1870s France, Ferdinand de Lesseps was a rock star. This was the man who had dared to dream the Suez Canal into being. Finished in 1869, the canal not only shaved off 6,000 km (nearly 4,000 miles) off the sea voyage from Europe to Asia, it also turned Africa into an island. De Lesseps was a world-changer. French public opinion hailed him as le grand Français; the imperial government made him a viscount.
Casting about for the next world-changing scheme, de Lesseps fell upon a plan to create a giant inland sea in the North African desert. The idea was not his own , but it took the Great Frenchman's seal of approval to propel the plan from obscurity to nationwide prominence.
The father of the 'Sahara Sea' was François Élie Roudaire, a French army captain who had been tasked in 1864 with mapping the more inaccessible parts of Algeria, then a French colony . In 1874, the military geographer was the first to establish that the so-called Chott  el-Mehrir, in the south of Constantine province and close to the border with Tunisia, was situated well below sea level .
Knowing his classics, Roudaire couldn't help thinking that this submarine salt plain might once have been the seabed of the fabled Bay of Triton . Described by Herodotus but unknown to modernity, the lake's debatable existence and location constituted an Atlantis-type mystery popular among geographers. Could Chott el-Mehrir be contiguous with other chotts towards the Tunisian coast, forming a the ghostly imprint of a former sea inlet? And… could this semi-mythical body of water be resurrected?
Detailed overview of the chotts across the Algerian-Tunisian border. They are coloured in too optimistic a shade of blue.
In the immediate aftermath of de Lesseps' triumph at Suez, a project of that magnitude might not have seemed impossible. But that still leaves the question: Why recreate that ancient sea at all?
Two words: mission civilatrice , the French take on the White Man's Burden. On the eve of Europe's Scramble for Africa, France's grip on a large swathe of the continent - from the Maghreb to the West African coast - was already tightening. With it came plans to bring order and progress to the continent, perhaps in the form of a Trans-Sahara Railroad ; and why not by re-creating an inland sea that would bring commerce and agriculture to the otherwise useless desert…
Roudaire laid out his plan in the May 15, 1874 issue of the Revue des Deux Mondes. To reanimate the Bay of Triton as far inland as 380 km (235 miles) from the Gulf of Gabès, on the Tunisian coast, he proposed to breach the coastal 'isthmus' of 20 km (13 miles) wide and 45 m (150 feet) high and siphon Mediterranean water inland via a canal that would be 190 km (120 miles) long. The resulting sea would have an average depth of 23 m (78 ft) and a surface area of about 5,000 km2 (3,100 sq. mi), which is roughly double the size of Utah's Great Salt Lake, or 14 times the size of Lake Geneva.
The admirable Triton: a map indicating the presumed location and extent of the ancient body of water.
The price tag: a mere 25 million francs . A small investment with a large return. The reanimated bay would, so Roudaire thought, be big enough to alter the local climate, turning the surrounding desert into a breadbasket: a vindication of France's enlightened policies, with tangible benefits for the local population. "The Sahara is the cancer eating away at Africa", Roudaire wrote. "We can't cure it; therefore, we must drown it".
Perhaps Roudaire found it fitting that the Sahara Sea would not only bring progress and prosperity, but also fulfil an ancient prediction. Legend has it that the god Triton himself, seated on a brazen tripod, had foreseen that, when a descendant of the Argonauts would come and carry off that tripod from his temple, a hundred Grecian cities would be built around the lake. And wasn't 19th-century Imperial France a worthy transmitter of the values and virtues of Antiquity? Creating what Roudaire called une mer intérieure africaine - a miniature Mare Nostrum  - would confirm France as a clear successor to the Roman Empire.
And yet, however high-minded the plan, Roudaire's large inland sea would also serve a more cynical, military purpose: "Un canal, large et profond, isolerait le sud tunisien […] et aiderait la pacification de la region". The Sahara Sea would isolate the rebellious tribes of southern Tunisia, making it easier to contain and subdue them.
Maximalist plan, with both the canal, and all to be submerged areas shown. Note the comparison map of Lake Geneva, inset lower right hand corner.
Roudaire didn't just appeal to public opinion; he also made sure to address the Great Frenchman directly. In a letter to de Lesseps, he explained that creating the Sahara Sea would result in:
"an immense amelioration of the climate of Algeria and Tunis, since the moisture caused by the evaporation  from the vast expanse of water will be driven by the prevailing southerly winds over these countries, forming a layer of humid atmosphere which will greatly mitigate the intensity of the solar rays and retard the cooling of the earth by radiation during the night. The proposed sea, too, being navigable for ships of the greatest draught, will also open a new commercial route for the districts lying to the south of the Aurès  and the Atlas range; while watercourses which from the south, west, and north converge towards the shotts, but which are now dry during the greater part of the year, will again become rivers, as the once undoubtedly were, leading ultimately to the fertilisation of vast tracts of now desert land on their banks".
De Lesseps bought into Roudaire's vision. With Suez Canal Man on board, France's political, scientific and literary elites followed suit. The Académie des Sciences supported the idea, and the French government provided Roudaire with a budget of 35,000 francs for a trigonometrical survey of the chotts towards the Tunisian coast.
In blue, the areas that are actually below sea level.
These expeditions must have been the high water mark of Roudaire's life. He was promoted, to chief of squadron. Great things were expected of him - to be the next French world-changer. And he traveled in style, accompanied by two engineers, a doctor, a purser, a draughtsman and twelve chasseurs d'Afrique .
Roudaire undertook two expeditions, to the Chott el-Gharsa in 1876 and to the Chott el-Djerid in 1878. The results were mixed, at best: Roudaire was able to establish, at least to the satisfaction of de Lesseps, that the chotts indeed were an ancient seabed. But the Tunisian chotts turned out to be truncated by elevated thresholds. The Chott el-Djerid, which is closest to the sea, was actually situated significantly above sealevel.
Only slightly daunted, Roudaire tried to save his scheme by lengthening his proposed canal while also decreasing the area to be flooded. But it was no use. France's scientists and engineers turned against the scheme — the former citing bad geography and geology, the latter an estimated cost ballooning to over a billion francs. In 1882, a high commission advised the French government against proceeding with the plan.
But Roudaire and de Lesseps couldn't help believing in the Sahara Sea. With private money, they founded a Société d'études de la mer intérieure africaine. Under its auspices if no longer the French government's, Roudaire in early 1883 left Touzeur for a fourth expedition . Even at that palliative stage of the plan, the Boston weekly Littell's Living Age, still proclaimed: "This is the plan which M. de Lesseps has been engaged in investigating, which Commandant Roudaire has been advocating for some ten years, and which may be said to have a calculable, if not a very immediate, chance of being carried out."
When Roudaire returned to France, he faced illness and criticism. Both the scientific milieu and his military hierarchy condemned his dogged adherence to what seemed to everyone else a lost cause. The forlorn pioneer of the Sahara Sea died in 1885 at the age of 48, of a fever he brought home from his last expedition.
Roudaine was survived by his African Inland Sea Research Society, which restricted itself to exploring the feasibility of an agricultural colony near Gabès, sinking artesian wells into the sand to fertilise the desert. Lack of results led to the society's dissolution in 1892.
As visionary as it was impracticable, the idea for a Sahara Sea tickled the fancy of Jules Verne, the grandfather of science fiction. In Hector Servadac (1877; a.k.a. Off on a Comet) he refers to Roudaire's scheme as if it is actually taking shape. In his last adventure novel, L'Invasion de la mer (1905; a.k.a. The Invasion of the Sea), he revisits the plan, with Berbers and Europeans fighting over the plan, only to have an earthquake create it anyway.
Verne revisited the idea of a Sahara Sea in his last book.
But grand visions never die, they just wait for the next visionary. In 1919, the Roudaire plan was cited as the inspiration for schemes to insert canals deep into the Tunisian interior. As late as 1958, French scientists were proposing versions of the plan. Even today, some suggest Roudaire's vision could still be realised. No canal required: by pumping water into the Chott El-Djerid, a submarine area west of Gabès of about 8,000 km2. The justification is the same as Roudaire's: creating an evaporation surface of such size would increase rain in the area, enhancing agricultural opportunities.
But perhaps ancient curses outweigh modern ideas of progress (or simply outlive them). The same legend mentioned above has it that the locals, when hearing Triton's prediction of a hundred Greek towns crowding around their lake, grabbed a hold of his magic tripod, and hid it in a place safe from the descendants of the Argonauts.
The Sahara Sea not only claimed the life of François Élie Roudaire, it also seems to have tainted the further career of Ferdinand de Lesseps. His later attempt to dig the Panama Canal  ended in a gigantic failure and a bribery scandal - for which he received a prison sentence in 1893. It was only commuted because of his advanced age. He died a year later.
The Sahara Sea remains what it was when Roudaire first conceived it: a desert mirage, shimmering in the untouchable distance. Unless and until someone finds Triton's tripod...
Strange Maps #617
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 Nor was the Suez Canal an original idea by de Lesseps. In 1832, while in quarantine on board a French mailboat off Alexandria, he came across a feasibility study into the subject, produced by Jacques-Marie Le Père, the director of Bridges and Roads on Napoleon's Egyptian campaign (1798-1801). Le Père's Mémoire sur la communication de la mer des Indes à la Méditerranée par la mer Rouge et l’isthme de Soueys had been published in Paris in 1822. ↩
 Whether Algeria was a 'colony' or simply a part of France depends on how charitable a view you hold of France's dominion over the country. Th French conquered Algeria in 1830 and annexed it in 1848, at which time its coastal zone was divided into three departments. These were considered a part of France just as much as any other 'metropolitan' department, although the native Algerians were granted considerably less rights than other French citizens - about 1 million of which had colonised the coastal districts by the middle of the 20th century. ↩
 'Chott' is the French spelling for an Arab word meaning 'bank' or 'coast', and is pronounced shot. The word describes salt lakes in the northern Sahara across Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia that receive some water in wintertime, but are dry most of the year. ↩
 At -40 metres (-130 ft), the area holds the distinction of being Algeria's lowest point. ↩
 Triton is not a place but a person, or rather a god. The son of Poseidon, Triton is a merman (upper body of a man, the tail of a fish) who in the story of the Argonauts dwells on the coast of Libya, where the Argo is cast into Tritonis palus, a marshy lake out of which the god himself has to guide Jason and his crew. ↩
 Literally, 'civilising mission'. The idea was not just to govern colonised people, but to assimilate them into European culture by having them adopt the French language, French culture and dress, and the Christian religion. ↩
 The French idea to link Algiers and Abidjan by rail rivalled the British scheme for a Cape-to-Cairo railway; neither proposal would come to fruition. ↩
 Small change compared to the 430 million francs it cost to dig the Suez Canal. ↩
 'Our Sea' in Latin, a term used by the Romans, first for the eastern Mediterranean, then for the entire sea, as their empire expanded its control over its shores in the first century BC. The term was resurrected by Italian nationalists in the late 19th and by Italian fascists in the early 20th century. For more on Italy's colonial ambitions under Mussolini, see #325. ↩
 Elsewhere, Roudaire cleverly draws analogy to de Lesseps' achievement by comparing his inland sea (and its projected rate of evaporation) to the Bitter Lakes, bodies of water that were created specifically for the Suez Canal. Although much smaller, they are positioned at a similar latitude (near the 34th parallel north). ↩
 An eastern extension of the Saharan Atlas range, situated in northeastern Algeria. Because of its inaccessibility, it remains relatively underdeveloped and retains its Berber character. The Aurès range was where Berbers in 1954 started the rebellion that would morph into the Algerian War of Independence. left Algeria in 1962. ↩
 Light infantry corps recruited mainly from the European settlers in North Africa (the so-called 'pieds-noirs'), as opposed to the Spahis, which were raised from the native North African population. The Chasseurs d'Af distinguished themselves in the Crimean War, 's invasion of Mexico, and both World Wars, among other conflicts. They corps were disbanded after Algerian independence, but a (mechanised) successor regiment was reinstated in 1998. ↩
 In that year, de Lesseps visited the chotts himself, reporting that the canal in his estimate would cost five years' work and cost 150 million francs. ↩
How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU2NzY4My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTUwMzg0NX0.BTK3zVeXxoduyvXfsvp4QH40_9POsrgca_W5CQpjVtw/img.png?width=980" id="b6fb0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2739ec50d9f9a3bd0058f937b6d447ac" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1512" data-height="2224" />
What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="7XqcvwWp" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="8506fcd195866131efb93525ae42dec4"> <div id="botr_7XqcvwWp_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7XqcvwWp-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/7XqcvwWp-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7XqcvwWp-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.</p><p>Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:</p><p>"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region." </p><p>The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its <a href="https://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/research/sjades2018/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" style="">head</a>. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cthulhu" target="_blank" rel="dofollow">Great Old Ones</a>. <em></em></p>
We look back at a year ravaged by a global pandemic, economic downturn, political turmoil and the ever-worsening climate crisis.
Billions are at risk of missing out on the digital leap forward, as growing disparities challenge the social fabric.
Image: Global Risks Report 2021<h3>Widespread effects</h3><p>"The immediate human and economic costs of COVID-19 are severe," the report says. "They threaten to scale back years of progress on reducing global poverty and inequality and further damage social cohesion and global cooperation."</p><p>For those reasons, the pandemic demonstrates why infectious diseases hits the top of the impact list. Not only has COVID-19 led to widespread loss of life, it is holding back economic development in some of the poorest parts of the world, while amplifying wealth inequalities across the globe.</p><p>At the same time, there are concerns the fight against the pandemic is taking resources away from other critical health challenges - including a <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/09/charts-covid19-malnutrition-educaion-mental-health-children-world/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">disruption to measles vaccination programmes</a>.</p>
A new study explains how a chaotic region just outside a black hole's event horizon might provide a virtually endless supply of energy.
- In 1969, the physicist Roger Penrose first proposed a way in which it might be possible to extract energy from a black hole.
- A new study builds upon similar ideas to describe how chaotic magnetic activity in the ergosphere of a black hole may produce vast amounts of energy, which could potentially be harvested.
- The findings suggest that, in the very distant future, it may be possible for a civilization to survive by harnessing the energy of a black hole rather than a star.
The ergosphere<p>The ergosphere is a region just outside a black hole's event horizon, the boundary of a black hole beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape. But light and matter just outside the event horizon, in the ergosphere, would also be affected by the immense gravity of the black hole. Objects in this zone would spin in the same direction as the black hole at incredibly fast speeds, similar to objects floating around the center of a whirlpool.</p><p>The Penrose process states, in simple terms, that an object could enter the ergosphere and break into two pieces. One piece would head toward the event horizon, swallowed by the black hole. But if the other piece managed to escape the ergosphere, it could emerge with more energy than it entered with.</p><p>The movie "Interstellar" provides an example of the Penrose process. Facing a fuel shortage on a deep-space mission, the crew makes a last-ditch effort to return home by entering the ergosphere of a blackhole, ditching part of their spacecraft, and "slingshotting" away from the black hole with vast amounts of energy.</p><p>In a recent study published in the American Physical Society's <a href="https://journals.aps.org/prd/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevD.103.023014" target="_blank" style="">Physical Review D</a><em>, </em>physicists Luca Comisso and Felipe A. Asenjo used similar ideas to describe another way energy could be extracted from a black hole. The idea centers on the magnetic fields of black holes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Black holes are commonly surrounded by a hot 'soup' of plasma particles that carry a magnetic field," Comisso, a research scientist at Columbia University and lead study author, told <a href="https://news.columbia.edu/energy-particles-magnetic-fields-black-holes" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Columbia News</a>.</p>
Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration<p>While there might not be immediate applications for the theory, it could help scientists better understand and observe black holes. On an abstract level, the findings may expand the limits of what scientists imagine is possible in deep space.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Thousands or millions of years from now, humanity might be able to survive around a black hole without harnessing energy from stars," Comisso said. "It is essentially a technological problem. If we look at the physics, there is nothing that prevents it."</p>
A popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields.