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Issues of the Day An Unprecedented Dust Storm, Extreme Weather and Unrest in the Mideast
 

I was caught off guard when I landed in Tel Aviv on Tuesday afternoon Sept. 8th and found Ben-Gurion International Airport looking as if it had been dusted by snow. The sky was overcast and jaundice-colored. I promptly learned that the country and neighboring Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, were enveloped in the worst dust storm ever recorded in Israeli meteorological history (The Jerusalem Post). Parts of Turkey and Cyprus were also affected by the particulate-laden clouds.


An unprecedented Event

The NASA satellite image here provided by the US Embassy in Tel Aviv depicts the extent of the storm as it appeared on its first day (Sept. 8).  The Times of Israel reports that "Jerusalem on Tuesday recorded its worst air pollution levels ever, at 173 times normal levels. In other parts of the country, air pollution levels were at their worst for 75 years." Time-lapse imagery at weather.com shows the storm's progression throughout the week.

 

Five days later, the sky remains pallid, the air hot and sticky, and listlessness pervades.  Known as haboobs, such dust storms are common in the Middle East. However, the severity and timing of the latest storm is exceptional according to the Environmental Protection Ministry, the national emergency medical service and other authorities in Israel, Syria and Lebanon.

 

What usually drives haboobs is dry weather and winds. A low pressure system descended on much of the Middle East at the start of last week and precipitated the ongoing storm.  Beyond this catalyst, though,  are a series of conditions that have been building in the region over the past months and years. These coupled with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's determination that the "first seven months of 2015 comprised the warmest such period on record across the world's land and ocean surfaces," helps to clarify the causes of this extreme weather event.


Drought and Abandoned Land 

A drought in Syria  beginning in 2006 led to an exodus of farming families to urban centers. This outmigration left large tracts of formerly cultivated farmland untended which consequently led to soil degradation and loss. Scientists have shown that the cumulative effects of contributed to the ongoing unrest in Syria (see my post "Inseparable Threats: Climate Change and Strife in the Middle East" (Aug. 20, 2015) both due to the mounting stress on urban areas and the deterioration of land and groundwater resources.

 

The mechanized combat taking place across Syria's hinterland further adds to the disruption of soil-water-air systems. The social and ecological destruction is mutually reinforcing.


Everyone's Problem

 A recent analysis of Syria's natural resources published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) describes how climate change, drought, and resource mismanagement produced the preconditions that proved ripe for a natural disaster of the type and magnitude we experienced.

 

The combat and civil unrest taking place in Syria and Iraq, the burgeoning refugee problem and now this extreme weather event makes it abundantly clear that state boundaries offer no immunity against the increasingly powerful combination of human-created and natural calamities.

 

To conclude, what is happening in Syria and Iraq is everyone's problem. 


© Yosef Gotlieb, . All rights reserved