<figcaption> Credit: COURTESY OF JIM MCQUAID</figcaption>

In the tiny village of Wankama, Niger, sits a rounded thatched hut. Except for its solar panels, it looks much like the twenty or so other huts that blend into the stark desert of the Sahel. Woven from brown straw, the hut measures about five meters in diameter. It is 1.5 meters high at the wall and reaches a height of three meters at the apex. The floor is plain soil. A floppy lean-to door covers the entrance. There are no partitions inside and no windows. Daylight enters through slits in the weaving of the walls and allows for a constant draft, and for the entrance of mosquitoes.

Unlike the huts nearby, which often house families of up to 10 people, no one lives in this hut. It's been turned into a laboratory. Five rod-shaped humidity and temperature probes are attached to the walls at...

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