Drought and Syria: manmade climate change or just climate?

September 9, 2013

Via NOAA: “Reds and oranges highlight lands around the Mediterranean that experienced significantly drier winters during 1971-2010 than the comparison period of 1902-2010.”

Drought is being implicated as a key instigator in the Syrian conflict. Climate change may have been lurking behind the scenes, making this drought worse.

The Atlantic’s James Fallow has an excellent overview explaining drought’s pivotal role in initiating Syria’s strife:

Drought devastated the country from 2006 to 2011.  Rainfall in most of the country fell below eight inches (20 cm) a year, the absolute minimum needed to sustain un-irrigated farming. Desperate for water, farmers began to tap aquifers with tens of thousands of new well.  But, as they did, the water table quickly dropped to a level below which their pumps could lift it.

In some areas, all agriculture ceased.  In others crop failures reached 75%.  And generally as much as 85% of livestock died of thirst or hunger.  Hundreds of thousands  of Syria’s farmers gave up, abandoned their farms and fled to the cities and towns in search of almost non-existent jobs and severely short food supplies.  Outside observers including UN experts estimated that between 2 and 3  million of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to “extreme poverty.”

The domestic Syrian refugees immediately found that they had to compete not only with one another for scarce food, water and jobs, but also with the already existing foreign refugee population.  Syria already was a refuge for quarter of a million Palestinians and about a hundred thousand people who had fled the war and occupation of Iraq.  Formerly prosperous farmers were lucky to get jobs as hawkers or street sweepers.  And in the desperation of the times, hostilities erupted among groups that were competing just to survive.

Some commentators are making the leap that manmade climate change is the culprit for the devastating dry spell.

That argument is a little simplistic as climate data show extreme droughts have impacted the region every decade or two since the late 1950s. Here’s a chart from a drought study conducted by Syrian researchers M. Skaf and S. Mathbout, published in 2010.


Chart shows number of weather stations with dry, severely dry, and extremely dry conditions in Syria 1958-2008. (Options Méditerranéennes)

In other words: drought happens in Syria and the Middle East.

Related: What we know about climate change and drought

The most recent drought, however, happened in a warmer atmosphere with higher greenhouse gas concentrations. When it’s warmer, the evaporation of water speeds up, allowing the ground to heat up faster, which then evaporates more water in a vicious cycle which continues until meaningful rain stops it.

The Skaf and Mathbout study finds an increase in the number of dry days in Syria during the rainy season between 1958 and 2008 (technical note: the trend towards more dryness did not occur steadily but in step changes or “regime shifts” mostly in the last 15-25 years).

You can, thus, make the case climate change played a role in intensifying the Syrian drought. A 2011 NOAA study did exactly that for the broader Mediterranean region.

“The magnitude and frequency of the drying that has occurred is too great to be explained by natural variability alone,” said NOAA’s Martin Hoerling, author of the 2011 study. “This is not encouraging news for a region that already experiences water stress, because it implies natural variability alone is unlikely to return the region’s climate to normal.”

The future outlook for drought in the Middle East is grim.

“For every degree Fahrenheit of warming, the length of periods with no rain will increase globally by 2.6 percent,” writes NASA, describing a recent modeling study. “In the Northern Hemisphere, areas most likely to be affected include the deserts and arid regions of the southwest United States, Mexico, North Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan, and northwestern China.”

Here’s an animation of the NASA precipitation simulation:

Via NASA: Model simulations spanning 140 years show that warming from carbon dioxide will change the frequency that regions around the planet receive no rain (brown), moderate rain (tan), and very heavy rain (blue). The occurrence of no rain and heavy rain will increase, while moderate rainfall will decrease. Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Scientific Visualization Studio

The likelihood of worsening droughts (and longer dry spells) in this region underscores the need to focus efforts on improved agricultural practices and technology.

Update: For further information on the Syrian drought and current conflict, see the report:  The Arab Spring and Climate Change from the The Center for Climate and Security

Jason is currently the Washington Post’s weather editor. A native Washingtonian, Jason has been a weather enthusiast since age 10.
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Jason Samenow · September 9, 2013