With around 56% of the global population now living in cities, we humans don’t often think about the incredible geological structures that exist all over the Earth. Occasionally, we’ll get a glimpse of some of Mother Nature’s handiwork by taking a vacation to the Grand Canyon or to the Himalayas to see some of the incredible natural land formations that occupy the Earth’s surface. However, there are certain geological formations that can’t truly be appreciated unless seen from space. One of these formations is the Richat Structure.
The Richat Structure goes by several other names, including the Guelb er Richat, the Eye of the Sahara, the Eye of Africa, and the Eye of Mauritania. From the ground, the Eye of the Sahara looks pretty much like any other patch of desert. There’s some sand here and some sand there, and if you look off into the distance, you can see more sand. However, when viewed from space, the true magnificence of the Richat Structure is revealed.
Satellite images of the structure reveal that it’s a ring of concentric circles that resemble the eye of a storm and even have a slightly bluish color. If you plan on traveling to space, you might be able to see this spectacular land formation in all its glory first-hand. However, if you travel by land to the center of the Eye of the Sahara, you probably won’t be all that impressed.
What Is the Eye of the Sahara?
The Richat Structure is a geologic dome that contains rocks dating as far back as 100 million years. That’s even older than the first living organisms on Earth. Initially, geologists believed that the structure may have been a crater formed when an object from space struck the surface of the Earth. However, after further investigation, they concluded that it was a lightly elliptical dome that has been deeply eroded over the years. This erosion caused the layers of the several different kinds of rocks to become exposed and form the concentric circles and cuestas that we see today.
The diameter of the Eye of the Sahara is about 40 kilometers, which is why the formation doesn’t look like much from the ground level. The structure features several different types of igneous rock, which are thought to be left over by past eruptions of two separate volcanic craters. The sedimentary rock exposed in the dome dates back to the Proterozoic eon in the center of the dome and to the Ordovician period around the outside of the dome. For reference, the Proterozoic eon ended over 541 million years ago, which goes to show just how old this structure is.
Scientists believe that when the Richat Structure was originally formed, the landscape was much more temperate than it was today. There would have been rivers and foliage instead of the desert that exists in the area today. Eventually, volcano activity from underneath the Earth’s surface would have pushed the land upward and formed a dome. After the volcanic activity died down, wind and water eroded the layers of the dome, exposing the several different kinds of rock within.
Where Is the Richat Structure?
The Richat Structure is located in the Sahara Desert’s Adrar Plateau. This part of the Sahara is situated within the west-central region of the country of Mauritania, and the nearest settlement to the Richat Structure is the small town of Ouadane.
The town of Ouadane, which was founded over 1,000 years ago, is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to the fact that it was once home to a flourishing community of people who made their money from the trans-Saharan salt and gold trade. The town once served as a learning center of science and technology for the predominantly Muslim travelers that passed through the region. Today, the community still has possession of many of the old books and letters from that time period.
The ruins of the old town are still somewhat intact and a small modern community exists outside of the old town. Beyond the limits of Ouadane is one of the most uninhabitable stretches of desert on Earth. It is only because of a local oasis that human civilization was able to survive there.
Can You Visit the Eye of the Sahara?
The area around the Richat Structure no longer has the temperate climate it had when the structure was formed, so traveling to the Eye of the Sahara is no easy task. First, you’ll have to obtain a Mauritanian visa so you can legally enter the country. Next, you’ll have to find a local guide to take you into the Eye of the Sahara. Trying to visit the Richat Structure on your own is a terrible idea because you risk getting lost in the Sahara Desert, which usually doesn’t work out very well for people.
The journey into the Eye of the Sahara will be hot as hell and very sandy. You’ll probably have to hop in some local person’s truck and cover your eyes from the hot sand that’s blowing up into your face. When you finally reach the Eye of the Sahara, you’ll probably wonder if you’ve actually arrived since, again, it just looks like any other patch of sand from the ground.
Apparently, there are some entrepreneurs in the region that will take you over the Richat Structure in a small airplane or a hot air balloon so that you can get an aerial view of the eye-like formation. Whether or not you want to trust your life with a random Mauritanian guy with a hot air balloon is up to you.
In terms of accommodation in the area, there are small hotels in the town of Ouadane. There’s also a hotel located just outside of the Richat Structure where you can enjoy the views of sand, sand, and more sand right from your room.
What Is the Future of the Richat Structure?
While many tourists and geologists visit the Eye of the Sahara every year to admire and study the geological formation, the frequency of human interaction with the structure is not nearly enough to threaten its existence. Due to the lack of water and rainfall, most people only want to trek out to the structure to do their sightseeing or scientific experiments and then return to civilization soon after.
While the Richat Structure is pretty much safe from destruction by direct human contact, the structure may still be threatened by humans in another way. Continued erosion may threaten the structure in the future. And since climate change has sped up the desertification of the area, the impacts of erosion will become greater and greater.
It is possible that, in the future, the entirety of the Eye of the Sahara may be covered in sand and dust deposited by erosion. Should this happen, visitors to the area would no longer be able to see any of the marks of this astounding geological formation, and the Eye of the Sahara would no longer be visible even from space.
If you needed another reason to join the effort to slow down climate change, consider that increased erosion brought on by climate change may hasten the disappearance of the Eye of the Sahara and many other amazing geological formations.