A massive sandstorm in Syria was caused by climate change, not the ongoing conflict in the area as previously suggested.

A satellite image of the massive sandstorm of 2015 at its peak on Sept. 8. Image courtesy of NASA.

In August of 2015, a massive sandstorm covered seven nations in the Middle East, closing ports, canceling flights, killing several, and causing thousands of injuries. At the time, many news outlets posited that the storm was the result of the Syrian Civil War. While that may sound far-fetched, they argued that increased use of military vehicles off-road and reduced agriculture and ground coverage because of people fleeing or being killed, contributed to a greater than average amount of sand and dust being kicked up by sandstorms.

But a study published in November of 2016 found that there is no evidence to support the idea that this sandstorm was caused by human conflict.

“The reports suggesting that this was related to the conflict in Syria were not supported by any research,” said Elie Bou-Zeid, an associate professor at Princeton, one of the researchers. “It was just hypotheticals thrown into the air.”

The research team believes that the sandstorm was actually caused by climate change, which is worse, because that means that similar storms can happen again in the future.

The researchers first looked at vegetation in the area, which was not only not lower than normal, the coverage for that year was actually higher than coverage between 2001 and 2007, and almost twice as high as it was between 2007 and 2010. Between 2007 and 2010 the region was also in the midst of a drought, but in the much hotter than average 2015 summer, the area was even drier than during that drought.

Combined with uncommon east-west winds (which normally flow south in this area), this dryness and increased temperature managed to cause a uniquely large sandstorm. But it might not be so unique in the long run, as global temperatures are expected to continue rising, with subsequent summers being hotter and drier than we’ve seen so far.

As climate change continues, giant sandstorms could become more frequent. It’s important that we understand how these storms are formed so that we can better learn to deal with them. While nothing short of significant reversal of climate change is likely to prevent such storms, we can at least prepare communities that might be affected by them.