Syrian Civil War Contributed to Unusual Dust Storm, Say Israeli Scientists

Analysis of dust particles confirms military activity caused harm to soil crust in Syria, Ben-Gurion University researchers say.

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Gaza City is shrouded in a thick layer of dust during the sandstorm last month.Credit: AFP

Israeli scientists this week confirmed that one factor behind the heavy dust storm that hit the Middle East recently is changes in the use of land in northern Iraq and Syria. According to an analysis conducted at Ben-Gurion University, the decline in farming and damage caused to the land due to the ongoing war in that region contributed to the storm.

The sandstorm that took place September 6-9 was exceptional both in its intensity and its timing. Analyses of the storm were conducted by remote sensory machinery operated by Ben-Gurion University’s Institute for Desert Research. The study was conducted with sun photometers, machines that measure the amount of sunlight that does not reach the earth based on the size of dust particles in the atmosphere, pollution and volcanic ash.

During the dust storm, the size of the dust particles in the air measured by these machines was larger than any previously recorded since the machines were installed in 1995. Analysis of satellite photos released by NASA showed that the storm covered an area spanning Syria, Iraq, Israel and Cyprus with a thick layer of dust particles that prevented those looking on from space to discern the land characteristics below.

According to Professor Arnon Karnieli, who heads the remote sensory lab, the laboratory staff tried to discern the cause of last month’s storm, particularly because most storms of that kind occur during the spring. Their research included constructing a 3D model of the storm’s path. “The analysis shows that the storm traveled mostly at ground level, and kicked up new particles that were dragged along,” noted Karnieli.

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 previous decade,” said 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.

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