Pirate Booty: A Monsoon Cache

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Among other things, the pirates attacking the shipping lanes off the coast of Somalia are robbing climate researchers of valuable data about Indian Ocean monsoons.

Scientists at Florida State University, a center of global wind analyses, report that the increasingly frequent attacks in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean have changed the routes of international shipping in a way that has created a large "data hole" for some multidecadal studies of importance to the region.

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"The data void exists in the formation region of the Somali low-level jet, a wind pattern that is one of the main drivers of the Indian summer monsoon," Shawn R. Smith and colleagues report in Eos, a publication of the American Geophysical Union. "Further, a stable, multidecadal record has been interrupted, and consequently, long-term analyses of the jet derived from surface wind data are now showing artificial anomalies that will affect efforts by scientists to identify interannual to decadal variations in the climate of the northwestern Indian Ocean."

Since 1991, civil war in Somalia has given rise to lucrative ship-hijackings and routine international warnings to commercial vessels to stay at least 600 miles off the Somalia coast. The piracy, especially since 2008, has pulled ship traffic away from the east Africa coast and the pathway of the seasonal Somali jet.

While some short-term studies are able to overcome this loss of weather-observing measurements from commercial shipping, the FSU team notes that longer-term climate studies rely on a record of data developed long before satellite-borne observations became available.

The researchers warned that the blip in the data will never go away, and future scientists need to be aware of its "geopolitical" origins.

"For example," they wrote, "a naive scientist might look at the wind anomaly fields and assume that the August 2009 northerly anomalies off Somalia have physical meaning. The evidence that piracy affects the long-term record of the Somali jet is a cautionary tale to those who are using surface-based analyses in the northwest Indian Ocean for the period beginning in mid-2008."

IMB Live Piracy Map 2011: This map shows all the piracy and armed robbery incidents reported to the IMB Piracy Reporting Centre during 2011.

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