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Syria & Climate Change: Unrest Is Mutual

For the first time, research has conclusively demonstrated the link between climate change and human conflict. Colin P. Kelley, now of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and formerly of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, where the research was conducted, and three colleagues published their groundbreaking study in the online pre-print edition of yesterday’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

ISIS-controlled areas in Syria ( The scientific team began with some evidence that Syria’s 2007−2010 drought—the worst drought on record there, which caused widespread crop failure and spurred a rapid exodus of 1.5 million from farms to the cities—contributed to the subsequent conflict. Was it possible that chaos in Syria and climate change might be related?

The concept of conflict accompanying climate change was nothing particularly new. Lionel Jarvis and colleagues editorialized about it in 2011 for the British Medical Journal. Military and social scientists have suggested it, Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times wrote about it, and Syria and climate change also appeared in a segment of the award-winning 2014 program Years of Living Dangerously on Showtime. Last year, the fifth assessment report of the UN’s blue-ribbon intergovernmental panel on climate change linked anthropogenic climate anomalies with human unrest and war.

Timeline of events prior to the 2011 Syrian uprising (

What’s new is that now the two distinct phenomena have now been connected through verifiable scientific method. Kelley and his team combed through 100 years of observed trends in precipitation, temperature, and sea-level pressure with a barrage of climate models to reveal that the 3-year drought was 2 to 3 times more likely to occur than one caused by natural variability alone.

Climate models used in the Kelley PNAS study (

Their results strongly suggest that anthropogenic forcing has significantly raised the probability of severe and persistent droughts in the Middle East region now sadly known as home to ISIS. Ironically, in this same part of the world, our human ancestors first developed the wheel, learned how to grow crops by irrigating fields, and started the historic period by learning how to read and write.

Kelley and colleagues found these causes for Syria’s abrupt and extreme drought:

Warriors of the Islamic Caliphate, a.k.a. ISIS (

Warriors of the “Islamic Caliphate,” a.k.a. ISIS (

  • A long-term drying trend,
  • Rising mean sea-level pressure in the Eastern Mediterranean,
  • Weaker moisture-carrying winds from the sea, and
  • More evaporation and depleted soil moisture due to a long-term regional warming trend.

Natural causes do not explain these trends, the researchers say. However, the observed drying and warming do coincide with increases in greenhouse gases.

Kelley and colleagues do not stop here, however. Flat out, they aver: “We conclude that human influences on the climate system are implicated in the current Syrian conflict.” That internal war has killed about 200,000 people and affected roughly half of Syria’s population to date.

Even worse, war in Syria and climate change may continue to coexist. Kelley’s extrapolations indicate “an increasingly drier and hotter future mean climate for the Eastern Mediterranean.” The researchers find that a drought of the severity and duration of Syria’s, now implicated in the current conflict, is more than twice as likely because of human interference in the climate system.

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covers environmental, health, renewable and conventional energy, and climate change news. She's currently on the climate beat for Important Media, having attended last year's COP20 in Lima Peru. Sandy has also worked for groundbreaking environmental consultants and a Fortune 100 health care firm. She writes for several weblogs and attributes her modest success to an "indelible habit of poking around to satisfy my own curiosity."


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