Conflict and the Environment

News outlets and educational resources recently reported on a surprising environmental impact of civil unrest in the Middle East. Certainly, we know that people are displaced and that critical infrastructure is damaged during conflict, but another byproduct of war is the disruption of economy. Transportation is less accessible and safe, resources become scarce, and demand decreases when populations scatter to other locations for better security. Simply stated, industrial activity slows down during wars. A paper published in the journal, Science Advances, provides analysis of satellite data from observations of major cities in the Middle East; researchers found that nitrogen oxide measurements in the atmospheres of these cities revealed valuable information about the effects of war, civil unrest, and other crises.

NO2 trend reversal in many locations in the Middle East: Tropospheric NO2 column density changes (A) between 2005 and 2010 and (B) between 2010 and 2014.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is a byproduct of the burning of fossil fuels which results in the production of smog and ozone. The New York Times notes that nitrogen oxides are frequently used by scientists as a key indicator of economic activity: “From 2005 to 2010, the Middle East had some of the world’s fastest-growing levels of pollution emissions, in step with economic development. According to the paper, however, in recent years many of the cities in the region showed a rapid decline in levels of nitrogen oxides, while levels continued to rise elsewhere in the world.” Effectively, because of war’s adverse impact on the economy, pollution in conflict zones is significantly decreased.

Further, scientists were able to correlate specific ongoing tumultuous, geopolitical events to increases or decrease in nitrogen oxide levels:

Nitrogen dioxide levels rose in Iraq after the war but have decreased sharply around the cities of Bagdad, Samarra and Tikrit with the rise of the Islamic State and its effect on the regional economy. Uprisings in Syria could be tied to lower nitrogen levels over cities like Damascus and Aleppo; the Lebanese cities Beirut and Tripoli experienced increases in nitrogen dioxide that correlated with an influx of Syrians fleeing unrest. Public turmoil in Egypt can be associated with its decline in air pollution since 2011.

Conversely, scientists along with national security experts have been studying the effects of the environment on geopolitical conflict. It is now widely accepted that an extreme drought in Syria from 2006 to 2009 was in part due to climate change; that drought, in turn, was a major factor in the popular demonstrations countered violently by the Assad government and in the rise of ISIS. Environmental changes can lead to instability, and the NO2 trends that correlate with humanitarian catastrophe show just how deeply intertwined crises and the environment really are.

Further analysis is needed to confirm the link between world events and satellite measurements; other causes such as weather events have not been ruled out. Importantly, seeing the decline in some pollutants should hardly be perceived as a positive development in this case. War has its own ecological impacts especially when one takes into account the use of modern-day chemical and nuclear warfare. Dr. Jos Lelieveld, the lead author of the study warns that the information provided by the imagery is “not the ‘silver lining’ of war” but rather “just an indicator of what’s going on.”

Discussion Ideas from the National Geographic Education Blog

  • Why is nitrogen dioxide, an environmental indicator, also used as an economic indicator?
    • Nitrogen dioxide is a by-product of the burning of fossil fuels. The burning of fossil fuels may indicate:
      • Greater trade and economic exchange. Fossil fuels provide fuel for cargo planes, trains, and ships.
      • Greater access to transportation.Most personal and public transportation are at least partly reliant on fossil fuels. As a city, region, or nation’s economy develops, it often corresponds to greater demand for transportation infrastructure.
      • Greater access to electricity.The electric grid of most cities, regions, and nations is driven largely, though not exclusively, by fossil fuels. As economic opportunity spreads to a wide population, more individuals, families, and communities demand access to electricity for light, electronic devices, clean and abundant water, and infrastructure from heated swimming pools to medical equipment.
      • Greater domestic productivity.Factories and other centers of industry (such as stock market trading floors) rely on fossil fuels to provide infrastructure for growth.
  • Why do you think NO2 emissions were growing in the Middle East between 2005 and 2010?
    • It was a rapidly developing part of the world. Oil production and export,led by Saudi Arabia and Iran, led to increased shipping in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea.
  • Why do you think NO2 emissions have decreased in Syria?
    • A civil war has expanded into a major regional conflict that has especially devastated cities such as Damascus and Aleppo. Cities, home to millions of people and thousands of industries, are leading sites of NO2 emissions. (Agricultural areas, for instance, produce far fewer emissions of this type.)
  • Why do you think NO2 emissions have increased in Lebanon?
    • Syrian refugees have sought asylum in the neighboring country. This massive and rapid increase in population has led to greater industrial activity in cities such as Beirut and Tripoli.
  • Why do you think NO2 emissions have dropped in Iran?
    • More than a dozen countries have joined the United States in imposing economic sanctions against Iran, largely to influence the development of its nuclear program. Sanctions imposed against the arms, banking, shipping, and energy industries have reduced Iran’s economic growth.
  • Why do you think NO2 emissions have dropped in Iraq?
    • Over the past five years, Islamic State, or ISIS, has taken control of cities such as Tikrit and Samarra. This brutal conflict reduced the industrial economies of these regions.
  • Why do you think NO2 emissions have dropped in Kuwait?
    • Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia have all implemented new air-quality standards to reduce emissions from the petrochemical industry.
  • Why do you think NO2 emissions have dropped in Israel and the Palestinian Territories?
    • New Clean Air Law
    • Conflict and decreasing industrial development in the Palestinian Territories
    • Economic restrictions in the West Bank
  • Is cleaner air a minor positive outcome of tragic situations?
    • NO.
    • Two experts quoted in theNew York Times are very clear.
      • “‘War is always an ecological catastrophe . . . Even if some air pollutants are reduced as economic activities decline . . . dangerous chemicals in the land and water ‘are likely on the rise due to the use of modern weapons of war.’”
      • “This is not the ‘silver lining of war.’ It’s just an indicator of what’s going on.”

Primary Sources

Lelieveld, J., Beirle, S., Hormann, C., Stenchikov, G., & Wagner, T. (2015). Abrupt recent trend changes in atmospheric nitrogen dioxide over the Middle East. Science Advances, 1(7). Retrieved April 24, 2015, from

Schwartz, J. (2015, August 21). Study Finds Surprising Byproduct of Middle Eastern Conflicts: Cleaner Air. The New York Times. Retrieved August 24, 2015, from

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