Subsurface Valleys and Geoarcheology of the Eastern Sahara Revealed by Shuttle Radar

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Science  03 Dec 1982:
Vol. 218, Issue 4576, pp. 1004-1020
DOI: 10.1126/science.218.4576.1004


The shuttle imaging radar (SIR-A) carried on the space shuttle Columbia in November 1981 penetrated the extremely dry Selima Sand Sheet, dunes, and drift sand of the eastern Sahara, revealing previously unknown buried valleys, geologic structures, and possible Stone Age occupation sites. Radar responses from bedrock and gravel surfaces beneath windblown sand several centimeters to possibly meters thick delineate sand- and alluvium-filled valleys, some nearly as wide as the Nile Valley and perhaps as old as middle Tertiary. The now-vanished major river systems that carved these large valleys probably accomplished most of the erosional stripping of this extraordinarily flat, hyperarid region. Underfit and incised dry wadis, many superimposed on the large valleys, represent erosion by intermittent running water, probably during Quaternary pluvials. Stone Age artifacts associated with soils in the alluvium suggest that areas near the wadis may have been sites of early human occupation. The presence of old drainage networks beneath the sand sheet provides a geologic explanation for the locations of many playas and present-day oases which have been centers of episodic human habitation. Radar penetration of dry sand and soils varies with the wavelength of the incident signals (24 centimeters for the SIR-A system), incidence angle, and the electrical properties of the materials, which are largely determined by moisture content. The calculated depth of radar penetration of dry sand and granules, based on laboratory measurements of the electrical properties of samples from the Selima Sand Sheet, is at least 5 meters. Recent (September 1982) field studies in Egypt verified SIR-A signal penetration depths of at least 1 meter in the Selima Sand Sheet and in drift sand and 2 or more meters in sand dunes.

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