Pulitzer Center grantee Tony Bartelme lives in Charleston, South Carolina, but his environmental reporting spans the globe. For his latest project, The Saharan Connection and Lessons from Senegal, Bartelme traveled to Senegal and Mauritania to document how meteorological phenomena across the Atlantic Ocean in the sands of the Sahara affect his city. Integral to the story are Bartelme’s interviews with local scientists doing groundbreaking research that rarely gets international attention.
These interviews, alongside Bartelme’s own scientific knowledge, form a story that illustrates how climate change knows no borders. In “Will Hurricanes Hammer the East Coast? We Traveled to the Sahara Desert To Find Answers,” he documents how clouds of dust rise from the Sahara and float in a jet stream above the Atlantic, right over where hurricanes bound for the East Coast of the United States are formed. It is in this area that 80% of the Atlantic’s most destructive hurricanes are born, including 1989’s Hurricane Hugo, which slammed Charleston.
Clouds of sand from the Sahara could actually be a good thing, though: They can dampen hurricanes before storms make their way across the ocean. But recently, climate change-driven warmer waters have weakened the jet stream that places sand clouds in the right spot. The effect could mean more frequent and more dangerous storms.
Amid these scientific forces, Bartelme takes a deeply human approach to his reporting. Photographs from grantee Andrew J. Whitaker highlight the West African scientists whom Bartelme interviewed, like Moussa Gueye, a professor of applied mathematics who decided to pursue climate science after his uncle’s house was destroyed by rising sea levels.
This installment in Bartelme’s climate reporting is an extension of his project Rising Waters: The Greenland Connection and his story "Rising Waters: Climate Change Is Speeding Up." Both are award-winning Pulitzer Center-supported work that examine the global drivers of locally experienced climate change.
Bartelme is a four-time finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, the author of several books, and a national honoree of the Nieman, Scripps, Loeb, and National Press foundations.
Pulitzer Center Editorial Intern Alexandra Byrne talked with Bartelme about his inspiration for his latest project, his on-the-ground reporting experiences in Senegal and Mauritania, and how he seeks to engage with a broader audience.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alexandra Byrne: First, tell me how this project was born. Why the Sahara? And why should people care about what happens there?
Tony Bartelme: This project actually began with another Pulitzer [Center]-funded project, which we call The Greenland Connection. And we did that a couple of years ago, where we went to Greenland to show how what's happening in Greenland has so much to do with what's happening [in] Charleston, and it was a really big success. We won an award for it, and there was a presentation last fall, where we got to talk about the project. We also met another award winner, who was from Senegal. He kept on talking about how Charleston is so similar to some cities in Senegal, and we just started thinking about those connections.
At the same time, I’m interested in how this dust from the Sahara makes it all the way across the United States. I knew about it, but I just knew about it in a real general sense. Then I learned that it actually turns on and turns off our hurricanes. And for us, that sort of sealed the deal.
AB: Can you tell me about the people you met along the way? They're a big part of your story, especially the scientists you spoke with. What struck you about their stories?
TB: So I think one of the things that we did that's a little different than other news organizations is we really tried hard to talk to scientists on the ground, who live in West Africa. Too often, journalists lean on people closest to them. And that all makes sense. But one of the most important aspects of this story was that scientists in West Africa weren't being heard. We wanted to rectify that. Now, one of the challenges of doing that is that a lot of them barely speak English, or French is their native language. So we have to navigate that language barrier. We did that by partnering with a local journalist.
AB: Talk a little bit more about those scientists and how that was unique to your reporting.
TB: From a storytelling standpoint, it's incredibly important to have characters, at least in my work—people who connect with readers on a personal level and then serve as guides through the science. Otherwise, the science becomes very, very dense and detached from everybody's lives. If you can get into somebody's personal life and personal journey, then your storytelling will take off. So my first goal is to really identify scientists who are leaders in their field. And then my second goal is to identify scientists who have good, personal stories that can make all these connections. We talked to probably 10 or 15 scientists until we found a couple that I thought could carry the load. There was this one scientist, Moussa Gueye—who lives in this, I would not say remote, but certainly off-the-beaten-track city in Senegal—who has done world-class research, and had a really neat personal story. And so when I found that, that to me means I can relax. Got the story.
AB: What are some challenges unique to climate reporting? And how do you think you made the story accessible to everyone?
TB: One of the biggest challenges of reporting on climate change is that many scientists really know the language of their field, but have difficulty conveying what they know in a clear way. So really my job is to translate their work, even if they speak English. If you speak French or Wolof, it's an even bigger challenge. The challenge is to try to describe what they do in simple terms. I work really hard to try to find metaphors and similes and comparisons that anybody can understand. These are really complex issues, but the story that I wrote in Greenland, and this one, when you measure its reading level, it’s at an eighth-grade level. When I can get it down to an eighth-grade level, no matter how complex it is, then I feel like that's the sweet spot for people to get.
AB: You also have the graphic novel Flood Woman, which accompanies the project. Talk a little bit about that. Why did you choose that medium?
TB: That grew out of our Rising Waters project, which was another Pulitzer [Center]-funded thing. We just wanted to try to reach new audiences. That to me is the challenge, to find different ways of telling stories so we reach more people. We came up with this idea of Flood Woman. In retrospect, maybe not the best name for a hero. Probably should have been a villain.
AB: Can you talk about the role of photography in this piece?
TB: [Andrew Whitaker’s] work is really great. It's also not as easy as it looks. We were only there for three weeks. A lot of the best photographs often are done by photographers who spend months or are local and really know the place. So to go in and capture solid photos is not easy. He's a master at that and is really good with light and seeing things. My goal for him was just, you're an equal partner. A lot of times writers will dominate the thing, but I really wanted the photography to be equal. He had an interesting journey himself.
AB: There is a French translation of the piece. What was the importance of that? Obviously, Senegal is a French-speaking country. Were you hoping to reach audiences there as well?
TB: That was part of our thematic approach, to include as many people as we can and we felt like that was an important bridge to cross. We fortunately found a fantastic translator. I think she did a great job, according to my French uncle. Let's not just write for our readers; let's write for readers there. I kind of like the fact that they can read what I did, just to know that it's an extra journalistic check. If they read something that’s totally nuts, they'll say it and I’ll take the heat for something. But, yeah, the French translation was a neat thing to do.
AB: Is there anything that you learned through this reporting that surprised you?
TB: That's an interesting question because I do a lot of work before I go. That's really the key to making any of these projects work. I spent four or five months building a network of contacts and sources. By the time I got there, it was all about capturing the context—the color, the textures. So I was very well prepared when I got there.
I was expecting a very difficult trip into Mauritania, and it was, so that wasn't a surprise. We did eat some camel meat, and it was not a surprise that it tasted terrible. I will say that I've done a fair amount of traveling. Andrew, it was his first time out of the country, so everything was a surprise to him.
AB: Are there any on-the-ground stories that stuck out to you?
TB: It was very special to go into Mauritania. We had to hire a canoe and pay a fee to do that. Then we had to pay another fee to go through immigration in Mauritania. Mauritania is somewhat dangerous because of ISIS activity in some parts. Going through into Mauritania was a challenge because we probably were followed by an undercover officer. But then once we got in, we were driving in the middle of Mauritania with a hired driver, and then Stevie Wonder's Part-Time Lover comes on. That just cracks me up because you couldn't have been farther away from everything, and then you hear Stevie Wonder.
That time when we started to see the Sahara and those orange dunes was really special. To me it was like we had to really experience the Sahara. We decided to stop in a village and we just kind of knocked on an open door, and pretty soon we were having tea with a family who couldn't speak English, but we were communicating anyway. There was a nice human moment.
AB: Is there anything else I missed that comes to mind from your reporting experience? Any larger connections you made?
TB: The importance of having a journalism partner there was huge. Her name is Borso Tall. We [got] there on a Monday night, and I had not met Borso Tall, the local journalist, but I had talked to her a few days before. When I called her up when we arrived, she said, “Oh, yeah, by the way, I just got married.” You just got married? She said, “Don't worry, we'll do what we're gonna do.” I just kept thinking, you're gonna have the worst honeymoon with Andrew and I. She was committed.
The big challenge for a lot of these stories is this parachute type of journalism. The worst parachute journalism is where you go in, and you make all these assumptions. You don't know what's happening. Then you end up writing a story that's wrong or superficial, and you ruin it for future reporters. That's why I spend so much time before trying to understand the place and develop the context there. I get a head start.