Spying on terrestrial politics from space

That the Middle East has been a hotbed of political and economic upheaval in recent years is not particularly newsworthy, but rarely considered is the role that the geopolitical climate has on the environmental one.

The typical pattern is fairly straightforward and makes a good deal of intuitive sense: as a nation gains in economic standing, it produces more pollution. That’s been especially true in the Middle East where the production of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and sulfur dioxide (SO2), chemical compounds linked to global climate change, is primarily related to fossil fuel consumption. Simply put, wealthier nations use more energy. And that’s exactly what happened in the Middle East until about 2010. But then things got weird.

Starting in 2010, various parts of the Middle East have witnessed dramatic political upheavals, like the Arab Spring in Egypt and Syria’s civil war, along with continued unrest in Israel and in the Palestinian territories. “We find that geopolitics and armed conflict in the Middle East has really drastically altered air pollution,” says Jos Lelieveld of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry.

Since 2004, a device called the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) has been deployed through the Aura mission, reflecting an international collaboration between Dutch and Finnish researchers and NASA. The instrument monitors the presence of NO2 and SO2. By orbiting the globe fourteen times each day, the OMI can keep tabs on the entire planet, though it only samples any single region once per day.

Together with colleagues from The Cyprus Institute, King Saud University, and King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Lelieveld combined information from the OMI with political and economic data. They discovered that the Middle East in the only region in the world in which the trend of increasing pollution, commonly observed across the planet, was suddenly followed by a very strong decline starting around 2010.

For example, they found strong declines in pollution over Iranian cities like Tehran and Esfahan beginning in 2010, as well as over the Persian Gulf. Since then, emissions from international shipping in the Gulf have declined by a factor of two. The researchers think the reductions are related to UN Security Council sanctions, which were tightened in 2010, along with US-imposed sanctions and divestment from Iran. “The effects of the boycott [on pollution] were considerable,” says Lelieveld.

Similar trends were seen over Cairo in Egypt, which experienced steady pollution increases of 5-7% each year until the Arab Spring. Beginning in 2011, NO2 pollution in Cairo began to decline but CO2 did not. The researchers think that while energy consumption in general did not decline following the unrest, the use of gasoline did. Thanks to reduced availability and higher gas prices people spent less time in their cars, which would explain the de-coupling of the two airborne chemicals.

On the other hand, pollution also decreased in recent years over the Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa. That is probably unrelated to political conflict, and instead is thought to be the result of the Clean Air Law of 2008, which the Israeli Knesset began to enforce in 2011.

It’s reasonable to wonder whether these patterns aren’t simply correlations. Is there a causal relationship between politics and atmospheric emissions? Lelieveld thinks so. For example, pollution declines were seen over the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Damascus in recent years, while simultaneous increases in pollution in the skies over Tripoli and Beirut, in Lebanon. Using information from the United Nations on the flow of Syrian refugees, the researchers inferred that the changes in pollution in both Syria and Lebanon were directly related to the political upheaval due to the Syrian civil war.

Even if they are simply correlations, that these sorts of political and economic trends can be detected from space by monitoring air pollution can still allow policymakers in nations that don’t have a dense network of air quality monitoring stations to better assess how their populations contribute to climate change, and how those contributions change over time.

The researchers also hope that their study provides yet another way for scholars to measure and interpret societal changes. “I’m an atmospheric physicist and I’ve never before been involved in using such measurements,” said Lelieveld. Using space-based monitoring tools could open up entirely new avenues for collaboration between the natural and political sciences.

Since the end of the Cold War, space has typically been thought of as a place where political struggles could be left behind, where astronauts and researchers from otherwise opposing nations could work together to understand our planet and its place in the universe. How ironic, then, that even from the isolation of orbit, our struggles remain so clearly visible. – Jason G. Goldman | 26 August 2015

J. Lelieveld, S. Beirle, C. Hörmann, & T. Wagner. (2015). Abrupt recent trend changes in atmospheric nitrogen dioxide over the Middle East. Science Advances 1(7), e1500498. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1500498.

Header image: Polluted air over Baghdad, via shutterstock.com