Beginning in 2007, Syria and the greater Fertile Crescent experienced the worst three year drought ever recorded in the region. Recent research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests the drought may have contributed to the ongoing conflict in Syria.

According to their study, the drought had detrimental effects on agriculture in northern Syria’s breadbasket region. Agriculture, which typically accounted for one-quarter of the country’s gross domestic product, fell by one-third and resulted in a large migration from the country to cities already burdened by refugees from the war in Iraq. This had an incendiary effect, contributing to a set of complex issues that resulted in political unrest.

Nearly 12,000 years ago, agriculture and animal herding originated in the Fertile Crescent. Although the region has been subjected to natural weather variations over the centuries, the report suggests that the most recent weather patterns may be due, in part, to anthropogenic forces. “This is a very strong case, perhaps the first that you can quantify the link of human induced climate change as a contributing factor to an ongoing conflict,” explains the study's lead author, climatologist Colin P. Kelley.

Using existing studies and their own research, the researchers found that, since 1900, the Fertile Crescent has experienced warming of 1 to nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit and wet-season precipitation has decreased by nearly 10 percent. Since they closely matched computer simulated models of human-influenced global warming, the researchers believe these trends strongly suggest they could not be attributed to natural variability. The study found there were two effects of global warming in the region--winds that brought moisture-laden air from the Mediterranean were weakened, and the higher temperatures increased evaporation of moisture from soils throughout the typically hot summers.

The Fertile Crescent also spans areas throughout Turkey and Iraq and the researchers found the drought’s effects were less pronounced in those countries due to several factors. Geographic diversity in Turkey and less reliance on agriculture in northwest Iraq had an impact, but more critically, Kelley tells me, “The biggest difference is in the level of vulnerability and resilience in these countries.”

He explains, “All countries have different governance, economics, and religious considerations and everything goes together to assess their level of vulnerability. One of the things we really wanted to point out in this paper is that, even before the drought occurred, Syria was highly vulnerable. They were very near their threshold of resilience, so it didn’t take much to push them over the edge.”

Although the researchers found climate change had implications in the conflict, they also stressed that the situation in Syria is complex and emphasized the role of several other issues, including poor governance, high unemployment, and poverty.

“People read it and think we’re trying to make the case that climate change caused the uprising. In fact, we very carefully say climate change did not cause the uprising. Even the drought did not cause the uprising. There were a host of other factors that came together to push Syria beyond its threshold of resilience,” says Kelley.

He adds, “We’re very measured in our conclusions. We say that there is very strong evidence that this drought was made much worse than it would have been otherwise due to climate change signal. Also, the drought was so severe that it caused this cascade of events and had a catalytic effect.”

This research adds to an ongoing examination into how climate change may contribute to aggression and violence.

Image Credit: Ed Brambley