Amid the increase in death, displacement and overall chaos in the Middle East over the past five years, Professor Jos Lelieveld of the Max-Planck Institute, says he has spotted one area where statistics indicate a decrease. He says, air pollution has declined significantly.
Using satellite data Lelieveld says he's found that the ongoing turmoil in the Middle East is drastically decreasing the level of air pollutants across the region.
The findings are at odds with the upward pollution trends predicted for the region and illustrate how societal crises can drive atmospheric changes. Nitrogen oxides are a form of air pollution, common byproducts of road traffic and energy production. Since the mid-1990s, nitrogen dioxides in particular have been monitored from space, and for most of that time, observations have pointed to a steady increase of this pollutant over South and East Asia and the Middle East, due to increased economic and industrial activity.
"Apparently there are economic and other societal factors, geopolitical factors that can have a very strong impact on air pollution and this is what we see from space. And the resolution that we now have available from space really enables us to look at particular cities," said Lelieveld.
To further understand trends influencing emissions, Lelieveld analyzed nitrogen dioxide pollution over cities in the Middle East, using the latest data from the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI), a high-resolution satellite imager deployed into space in 2004 to detect and track specific types of air pollution. The researchers compared OMI observations with economic and energy data from the World Bank and US Energy Information Administration and noticed that after the year 2010, dramatic reversals in air pollution began in Saudi Arabia, Iran, central Iraq and other Arabian Gulf countries, as well as in Syria and Egypt.
And it's not just the Middle East, Lelieveld says political turmoil elsewhere has been an important factor in the pollution decline.
"Well we see Greece for example, since 2008, since the start of the economic and financial crisis that there is a very strong reduction, very strong. We are talking about something like 50 percent. Then we see in Syria a very strong reduction as well but that started in 2011. We see changes in Egypt which started in 2011. And we see the effects of the Islamic State in Iraq where they are active. We see that people are migrating away and activities are coming to a halt. And in other countries which are taking on refugees like Jordan and Lebanon, there were increases," he said.
Lelieveld says tracking pollution in the air, could help policy makers decide which areas on the ground are in need of the most help.