25 August 2011

Climate cycles are driving wars, says study

(click to enlarge)

El Nino drought cycles heavily affecting some 90 countries (red) appear to be helping drive modern civil wars.
Courtesy Hsiang et al./Nature
The long war leading to South Sudan's recent independence kicked off during the powerful El Nino drought of 1983. In continuing hostilities, southern fighters display a grenade launcher captured from the northern Sudan Armed Forces, July 2011.
Trevor Snapp

In the first study of its kind, researchers have linked a natural global climate cycle to periodic increases in warfare. The arrival of El Niño, which every three to seven years boosts temperatures and cuts rainfall, doubles the risk of civil wars across 90 affected tropical countries, and may help account for a fifth of worldwide conflicts during the past half-century, say the authors. The paper, written by an interdisciplinary team at Columbia University's Earth Institute, appears in the current issue of the leading scientific journal Nature.

In recent years, historians and climatologists have built evidence that past societies suffered and fell due in connection with heat or droughts that damaged agriculture and shook governments. This is the first study to make the case for such destabilization in the present day, using statistics to link global weather observations and well-documented outbreaks of violence. The study does not blame specific wars on El Niño, nor does it directly address the issue of long-term climate change. However, it raises potent questions, as many scientists think natural weather cycles will become more extreme with warming climate, and some suggest ongoing chaos in places like Somalia are already being stoked by warming climate.

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