A pigeon sits on a wire during a sandstorm in Beirut, on Sept. 8. (Alia Haju/Reuters)

Last month, a thick yellow cloud of dust blanketed parts of the Middle East and extended all the way to Cyprus. Tens of thousands of Syrian refugees were forced to scurry for shelter from the choking plume, while Israelis were instructed to stay indoors and ports in Egypt were shut. Health officials in Damascus, the Syrian capital, said more than 1,200 people, including 100 children, were hospitalized with breathing difficulties; in Lebanon, two women died as a result of the dust storm.

It was an unusual, unseasonal event, as my colleague Hugh Naylor reported. And, according to a team of Israeli scientists, it may have been the consequence of extreme, man-made conditions in Syria and Iraq right now.

As Israeli newspaper Haaretz notes, researchers at Ben-Gurion University's Institute for Desert Research scrutinized the storm, the likes of which are usually seen in the spring. They found that the particles of dust kicked up were larger than anything their instruments had previously recorded (since being operation in 1995) and that the dust traveled at a rather low level.


This satellite image, posted online by NASA on Sept. 9, shows a sand storm blanketing the Middle East. (NASA via AP)

Haaretz's report suggests this is tied to a dramatic change in the Syrian environment, where large-scale agricultural work has ceased and war has literally wracked the land:

According to initial results of the study, the researchers attribute the storm and its intensity to two main factors. The first is a sharp decline in the amount of farm activity in northern Syria, largely caused by removal of dams along the Euphrates River by Turkey. “The process began during the precious decade,” said [Professor Arnon] Karnieli, adding, “The analysis shows stark differences between the Turkish side of the border and the Syrian side in terms of vegetation.” The other factor is the military activity, which has caused harm to the soil crust in Syria.

It's just another sign of the impact of the country's hideous, grinding conflict, which is now in its fifth year. More than 300,000 Syrians have perished since the civil war began and more than half the country's population, nearly 12 million people, have been forced to flee their homes.

The storm provided one bit of respite for opposition fighters combating the Syrian regime: It blinded the Syrian government air force for a time and helped shield rebel troop movements. But that moment has since passed, and with the recent intervention of the Russian military on behalf of the regime, the war looks to be getting only more entrenched.

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