Study: Drought contributed to Syrian conflict

Mar 02, 2015, 4:38 PM EST
A man on bicycle rides past destroyed buildings following the air strikes of Syrian regime forces jets in Arbin town of Damascus, Syria on March 2, 2015.
Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

In research published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists examined how a severe drought -- brought on by climate change -- in Syria between 2006 and 2009 had an influence on the civil warfare that arose in 2011. The New York Times reports:

The researchers said this trend matched computer simulations of how the region responds to increases in greenhouse-gas emissions, and appeared to be due to two factors: a weakening of winds that bring moisture-laden air from the Mediterranean and hotter temperatures that cause more evaporation.
Colin P. Kelley, the lead author of the study, said he and his colleagues found that while Syria and the rest of the region known as the Fertile Crescent were normally subject to periodic dry periods, “a drought this severe was two to three times more likely” because of the increasing aridity in the region.
Dr. Kelley, who did the research while at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and is now at the University of California at Santa Barbara, said there was no apparent natural cause for the warming and drying trend, which developed over the last 100 years, when humans’ effect on climate has been greatest.
Martin P. Hoerling, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration whose earlier work showed a link between climate change and aridity in the Eastern Mediterranean, said the researchers’ study was “quite compelling.”
“The paper makes a strong case for the first link in their causal chain,” Dr. Hoerling said in an email, “namely the human interference with the climate so as to increase drought likelihood in Syria.”
A severe drought, worsened by a warming climate, drove Syrian farmers to abandon their crops and flock to cities, helping trigger a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, according to a new study published Monday.
The research provides the most detailed look yet at how climate change may already be helping spark violent political unrest.
"Up until now we've understood and established that changes in climate may affect human conflict in the future. But everything until now has stopped short of saying climate change is already having an effect," says Solomon Hsiang, a University of California, Berkeley professor who has studied the role of climate change in violence. He did not participate in the new study.
The authors acknowledge that many factors led to Syria's uprising, including corrupt leadership, inequality, massive population growth, and the government's inability to curb human suffering.