It’s Not ISIS: Dust Storm That Swept Israel Not Caused by Syria War, Research Finds

Joint Israeli, U.S. study concludes low humidity and high temperatures led to the choking haze, and there's more to come as global warming proceeds.

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A man protects himself from dust following a reported barrel bomb attack by Syrian pro-government forces on a rebel-held district in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on May 1, 2015.
A man protects himself from dust following a reported barrel bomb attack by Syrian pro-government forces on a rebel-held district in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on May 1, 2015.Credit: AFP
Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

It turns out that the great dust storm that struck Israel and its neighbors a year and a half ago was not set off by any changes attributable to the wars in Syria or Iraq, as some experts theorized.

Research published last week finds the storm was a result of extraordinary dryness combined with other extraordinary meteorological conditions, including changes in wind, which created a movement of dust.

The study published in the Environmental Research Letters periodical was conducted by researchers from the United States and Israel, among them, Dr. Shmuel Assouline from the Volcani Center in Beit Dagan and Eli Bou-Zeid of Princeton University.

Tel Aviv's beach amid heavy haze caused by dust storm. September 8, 2015.Credit: Moti Milrod

At the end of 2015 an unusually strong dust storm developed near the border between Syria and Iraq. In the days that followed large quantities of dust from this storm moved into neighboring countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Israel.

The thickness of the dust along the Mediterranean coastline was much greater than the multiyear average of dust accumulations for the month of September. It disrupted civilian air traffic, visibility was significantly reduced and exposure to dust particles led to thousands of people being hospitalized with breathing problems.

In the days after the dust settled, several experts theorized that the incident may be linked to changes on the ground wrought by the fighting in Syria and Iraq coupled with a drought that preceded the storm. 

Experts thought that the abandonment of agricultural land due to the drought and afterwards because of the war, in addition to the incessant movement of military vehicles across wide swathes of territory, had led to soil erosion, creating conditions for the development of large dust clouds then transported by heavy winds.

As part of the latest study, researchers examined vegetation cover data for Syria and Iraq via remote sensors. They found that in 2007 through 2010 there had been a protracted drought, while in 2013 and 2014 rain had fallen in these areas and the vegetation cover in the period in which the storm occurred was high, even in comparison to the years preceding the drought.

Negev doe with fawn during a dust storm, near Nitzana, September 2015 (First Prize in Mammals category).Credit: Gal Bismuth, RTG

The researchers said that vegetation cover had receded in only limited areas. These findings negated the hypothesis that drought and war had caused the great dust storm.

Meanwhile data gathered at the meteorological station on Mount Canaan near Safed found that during the same year ground temperature was particularly higher and the humidity was less than usual.

These meteorological conditions explain the potential for dust to accumulate in great amounts. Researchers believe that changes in wind pattern offer an explanation for the movement of dust in such extraordinary quantities which occurred, in the direction of Western Mediterranean countries

Wind storms during such seasons are not extraordinary and are usually caused by northerly winds. But during the period that was studied, the winds blowing from east to west were relatively weaker. These winds brought up great quantities of dust from the dry ground, and eventually the particles covered the skies of neighboring countries.

Researchers said expected climate changes in the region due to global warming will raise the frequency with which similar dry spells occur. This factor will also increase the probability for a recurrence of similar events.

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