The Syrian War Is Causing a Dust Bowl in the Middle East, Researchers Suspect

Fighting in Syria is creating conditions similar to those that caused the Dust Bowl.

by Emanuel Maiberg
Oct 19 2015, 10:00am

Image: NASA

In early September, a huge, unprecedented dust storm swept over the Middle East, and a group of researchers in Israel have reason to believe it may have been caused by the ongoing war in Syria.

Dust storms are common in the Middle East, but this one is unusual for several reason, most of all in its severity.

The Remote Sensing Laboratory in Israel uses a device called a sun photometer to measure the severity of dust storms. The device measures the amount of light coming from the sun, and how it's reduced by dust, volcanic ash, pollution, smoke from forest fires, and other factors.

The head of the Remote Sensing Laboratory in Israel Arnon Karnieli told Motherboard that the dust storm in September was the most severe it has measured with this method since it started taking measurements in 1995.

The storm also covered a large territory, including Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Cyprus. There have been storms of that covered as much territory before, but in this part of the world they mostly originate in the Sahara. The September dust storm originated on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Lastly, dust storms in the Middle East usually happen in March and April, so the timing is also unusual.

"Its movement was really at the center of Syria, where the fighting was last summer"

The combination of these anomalies prompted the Remote Sensing Laboratory to investigate further, and while Karnieli stresses that so far all it has is circumstantial evidence, the said signs point to the war in Syria as the cause.

Karnieli said that when they analyzed the course of the storm, they found that winds moved very close to the surface across the Syrian desert, like a shovel gathering dust.

"The other thing we found out is that its movement was really at the center of Syria, where the fighting was last summer, around the city of Tadmur," Karnieli said. Islamic State and Syrian government forces have been fighting in the area since May 2015. You may remember it as the place where ISIL destroyed an ancient temple at ancient ruins of Palmyra.

"The top layers of the surface in desert areas are covered by crusts, and that's why they're not carried away with the wind," Karnieli said. However, that crust can be broken by military vehicle movement, people movement, and bombing. Fighting that stopped regular agricultural activity in the area would theoretically create more dust as well, as vegetation covers the surface from winds and holds the top layers of the soil in place.

All these factors, in combination with drought and heat, could have created more dust than usual for the low winds to pick up and create the severe dust storm.

Karnieli compares the conditions to those that created the Dust Bowl in United States in the '30s, where new farm equipment disturbing the topsoil and a drought caused giant dust storms.

The September dust storm in the Middle East grounded flights in the region, sent scores of people with respiratory conditions to the hospital, and even killed a few, according to the BBC.

If the fighting in Syria continues, Karnieli said, we could see similar dust storms whenever these wind conditions repeat.