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Minor drying in Iran causes farmers to flee Syria

The origin of the claim that the Syrian refugee crisis is partly caused by climate is a paper by Kelley et al in PNAS. This has picked up quite a lot of media attention, yesterday's Independent  article being just the latest.

Kelley et al is a bit odd though. Consider at what they found. In the top panel of the following figure, they claim to have found a significant drying trend. They are using a significance level of P <0.05. (Questions, questions: why do they calculate trends since 1931 when they have data going back to 1900?)

However, if you wanted to examine climate as a cause of the Syrian uprising, you would imagine you would want to look at the climate in Syria. Kelley et al, however, have not done this, but instead have looked at the climate in the greater Fertile Crescent, an area that also takes in most of Iraq, half of Iran and the majority of Turkey.

When you look at their climate maps, you can see why this matters. In panel B, below, the big reductions in precipitation, show in darker brown, are not actually in Syria at all, but on the Turkey/Iraq border and in Iran. Referring to panel A, those biggest reductions are also taking place in the areas that already have the most rainfall. Panels C and D are about the recent drought, but are obviously over too short a period to be relevant to "climate".

Going back to panel B, the authors say they have found a statistically significant drying at several stations in the area, marked by circles. However, in fact as they note in the text only 5 of 25 stations showed this "significant" drying and only one of these was in Syria. Moreover, when they say "significant" in this case, they are using a significance level of only 0.1.

It looks to me as if what they have done is to use a minor drying trend in the wetter parts of Turkey, Iraq and Iran to make a completely spurious claim about the climate in Syria.

According to the paper, it was reviewed by Sir Brian Hoskins of the Grantham Institute.

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Reader Comments (35)

I would also point out that the premise of the conclusion is unproven as well.

Climate Change is not acute but a drought is. If the weather gradually dries over 80 years people will slowly emigrate. One son and daughter or maybe even a whole family at a time, over the years.

If there's no water today people flee to the next watering hole immediately.

The current exodus from Syria is an acute problem. That's not related to climate anyway.

Sep 9, 2015 at 10:02 AM | Registered CommenterM Courtney

M Courtney

Sep 9, 2015 at 10:28 AM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

As this drought was well within in the period of hiatus - or no warming - their 'effect' has a missing cause. Richard Seager, usually a sober individual who did much to expose the gulf-stream shift hypothesis as being an utter myth, does himself no credit by such blatant bandwagon-jumping.

Sep 9, 2015 at 10:32 AM | Unregistered CommenterJamesG

@ M.Courtney.

Using logic and reason to arrive at a conclusion that busts the paper and reveals it to be just another pro-climate change propaganda tool? Try pulling that stunt on Comment Is Free and you'll likely find your post is also the subject of a very acute exodus.

Sep 9, 2015 at 10:36 AM | Unregistered Commentercheshirered

cheshirered, why do you think I'm a "refugee" here?
I used to post at the Guardian but kept getting banned and having my comments deleted.
As a Lefty I ought to be over there being part of the civic debate.

Sep 9, 2015 at 10:40 AM | Registered CommenterM Courtney

Regional annual precipitation trends vary of course but the overall global trend since 1900 is distinctly positive:

Sep 9, 2015 at 10:43 AM | Unregistered CommenterChris Hanley

Read the Indy article, it has just 3 comments, does this reflect that papers readership figures?

Sep 9, 2015 at 10:59 AM | Unregistered Commenteredwin

This upsurge in typical 'big bad warming' papers appears to be a precursor for something that is about to take place. It isn't warming, therefore it can only be that they are afraid the the big shindig in Paris will be a failure. We already have some guy from the Obama administration flying round the world to whip up the Indians and Chinese and the UN has called on the leaders of the west to attend a meeting just before the next general assembly meeting to advance the global warming talks.

They have to be afraid that Paris will be the end of the gravy train. Why else would a paper like this appeal to the recent emotional upsurge about Syria?

Sep 9, 2015 at 11:07 AM | Unregistered Commenterivan

Political climate change has disrupted the flow of money from Iran to Syria. This has created great extravagance during periods of plentiful supply.

When the supply of money dries up, anger and frustration builds, and if no one locally has any incentive to do anything about it, external agencies are sought. This only becomes maximum priority, if suffering can be attributed to climate change. Western agencies will seek nothing in return, apart from the right to extract maximum propaganda, to support failed political doctrine.

Sep 9, 2015 at 11:14 AM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Since Global Warming is supposed to result in warmer ocean waters and therefore a greater input of water vapour into the atmosphere, and therefore a greater output (i.e. rain), any effect of it is a bit more likely to make any drought less severe than it would otherwise be, rather than more severe.

"Global Warming" may be saving us from even more drought-driven migration than would otherwise be occurring.

Sep 9, 2015 at 11:19 AM | Unregistered CommenterMikky


Surely then that means at least one exodus can be linked directly to climate change?



Sep 9, 2015 at 11:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterMailman

One of my main gripes over climate alarmism is its band wagon jumping habit. In each case the issue jumps to the head of the queue of things that have had much higher influences on the problem. So yes, drought with a tiny AGW influence may have added to the Syrian conflict. Even drought in surrounding regions. One of the problems has been the building of dams on rivers that pass through multiple countries and/or irrigation schemes. Yes, they might have been speeded up because of a drought but they were inevitable given ever growing populations and the adoption of western farming know how. Problems may equally have been made worse by bio fuels. So at most AGW is a peripheral issue.

The other reason this is an unacceptable habit, is that it gives an already bitter bunch of people more justification to blame anything and everything on westerners. In other words they cheerfully pour fossil fuels on a raging fire.

I know they do these things to try and prod our consciences but it's having the opposite effect on me. I feel my scepticism grow by the year.

Sep 9, 2015 at 11:22 AM | Unregistered CommenterTinyCO2

The article refers to 'drought fuelled conflict'

Change it to 'fuel drought conflict' and/or 'fuel revenue drought conflict', and it all makes sense. The Syrians have benefitted from the surplus fuel revenue coming in from external sources,. Not all of the money has oiled the machinery of the official Government officials.

Sep 9, 2015 at 11:36 AM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

@Chris Hanley: Well observed. This positive trend is surely caused by Australians not wanting to flee their country ;-).

Sep 9, 2015 at 11:37 AM | Unregistered CommenterBen Palmer

It would be fair to say Paris caused this drought in Syria.

Sep 9, 2015 at 11:42 AM | Registered Commentershub

Another idea would be to plot adjusted and unadjusted temperatures over the region/s.

Sep 9, 2015 at 11:43 AM | Registered Commentershub

I think it's pretty clear that the conflict in Syria has little or nothing to do with climate change.

But on this point:

"Questions, questions: why do they calculate trends since 1931 when they have data going back to 1900?"

I thought that discussion of "the pause" had decisively shown that choosing an arbitrary starting point for a straight line fit to get the result you want is absolutely, definitely noting to do with cherry picking, and anyone who suggests otherwise is a bed-wetting fascist?

Sep 9, 2015 at 12:12 PM | Unregistered CommenterJK

anything goes for the sc*m left, as long as we do not blame obam for Isil , mulla repression, civil wars and toal mayhem in syria, lybia, iran, yemen, nigeria, cameroun etc

how well all that "shifting red lines" , "leading from the back" works!
any problem can only be climate or isreal

nobody on the ground thinks these are the causes btw
if someone was crucified or stoned or executed it was because of total breakdown in ecurity and collapsed (oil) states, not because it doesnt rain enough

Sep 9, 2015 at 12:18 PM | Unregistered CommenterVenusNotWarmerDueToCo2

True enough JK.
A straight line through 115 years of regional temperature is not terribly useful. And nature doesn't do straight lines.

Since climate is an average of 30 years, why not simply do a running average. Or do separate trends for each 30 year block. At least you could say they trend up and down for those periods.

Sep 9, 2015 at 12:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterGreg Cavanagh

Shub, another idea would simply be to plot your adjustments, over time, to produce the required plot. This is very popular in climate science.

Sep 9, 2015 at 12:57 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

The PDSI (Palmer drought severity index) figures they post do not reach low enough (below -3) to qualify as a “severe” drought for even a short while.

What that means in terms of agriculture is debatable[*], but the population was also still increasing rapidly during the peak drought periods. Thus I am inclined to think that the argument that drought was the major cause of exodus, is bolleaux.

The Bish opines:

Kelley et al is a bit odd though. Consider at what they found.

I would say "Consider what they did".
The paper is pay-walled, but as far as I can tell, they just selected a small amount of data (probably collected by someone else) and used some graphing software to crank out a 'peer reviewed' paper. A paper based on opinions that were known to be acceptable to a reviewer at The Grantham Institute whose founder explicitly wishes to profit from carbon trading(!).

As Steve McIntyre once commented at Climate Audit when being denied some information he had sought under FOI request, he didn't actually expect to find a smoking gun but more likely that it would just prove how little work these people do for their money. Money that could be spent on real science elsewhere.

All the article really reveals is that the climatists practice the art of ambulance chasing.

[* Yes, I know climate scientists also consider themselves as experts in farming as well as every scientific discipline under the sun.]

Sep 9, 2015 at 1:39 PM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

michael hart, think of the amount of champagne that will flow, aswell as all the money and slap up meals, that will follow falsifying data about the real cause of human suffering, irrespective of all the human greed that caused the suffering in the first place.

Mother Theresa could have died a wealthy woman, if she had spent most of her time being paid to blame others, rather than doing something useful, out of kindness.

Sep 9, 2015 at 2:33 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

Definitely the minor decrease in wetness causing unrest.

Nothing at all to do with the (eyeballed) 5+ times increase in population.

Sep 9, 2015 at 3:25 PM | Unregistered CommenterClovis Marcus

Clovis Marcus, the overpopulation is being dealt with by AK47's, a cheap, instant and permanent form of birth control, highly rated by Malthusians.

Sep 9, 2015 at 3:41 PM | Unregistered Commentergolf charlie

But there's more light over here, that's why I'm looking for my keys under the lamp post.

Sep 9, 2015 at 3:57 PM | Unregistered CommenterEarle

JK, incorrect about the pause and cherry picking. You can only look at the pause from when it started and while it continues, what went before is irrelevant.

Sep 9, 2015 at 5:04 PM | Unregistered CommenterMartin Mason

M Courtney
I for one appreciate your comments here.

Sep 9, 2015 at 5:28 PM | Unregistered CommenterSandyS

Check this story out.

Turkey built of couple of Hydro Electric Dams back in the 1975 just as it was accepted into NATO.Appears these Turkish Dams interrupted the fresh water river supply into both pro PLO Cold War Soviet Allied Iraq and Syria.

These dams have been a constant source of conflict with Turkey and its Arab Neighbours.Even in 2009 after the Invasion the Democratic elected Iraqi Parliament was appealing to the United Nations for Turkey increase the flow of the Tigress River into Iraq.

Sep 9, 2015 at 6:16 PM | Unregistered Commenterjamspid

Climate refugees coming to Europe, Juncker warns

Apparently if the Paris talks fail there will be even more climate refugees, according to the political elite. Methinks they are getting desperate.

Sep 9, 2015 at 7:01 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlexB

AlexB - a link to the actual speech is on unthreaded. There is a chunk in it on "climate change":

"United in Leadership in Addressing Climate Change"

Sep 9, 2015 at 7:21 PM | Unregistered Commenternot banned yet

Don't blame Global Warming or ISIS blame Turkey for hoarding all the local river water.

So any Environmentalist thinking damming rivers for Hydro Electric to fight Global Warming might have to think of the Environmental Political and Social consequences.

The Aswan and Hoover Dams are two great examples of successful Hydro Electric because they had the political will of their people to build them , but i can think of another Dam in another country that has caused a barbaric civil war inside two of its neighbors .

Sep 9, 2015 at 7:25 PM | Unregistered Commenterjamspid

Thanks, not banned yet. That'll teach me to check Unthreaded more often.

Sep 9, 2015 at 7:27 PM | Unregistered CommenterAlexB

Well its a good job that plants grow better and need less water with increased levels of CO2.

Sep 10, 2015 at 10:39 AM | Unregistered CommenterJohn Galt

Over at Real Science, newspaper clipping about the 1930's drought in Syria. I don't know how Tony Heller manages to find so many real life examples of climate fools.

Sep 10, 2015 at 11:04 AM | Unregistered Commentermichael hart

Monthly precipitation record for Damascus and Aleppo:

And remember than PNAS is by definition, pal-invited and pal-reviewed.

Sep 10, 2015 at 12:48 PM | Registered CommenterPatagon

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