Most Recent Middle East Drought Was Worst in 900 Years: NASA

middle east drought syria palestine_0303
Sheep graze next to a dried out gulley that's usually filled with natural spring water in the Palestinian village of al-Auja, near the West Bank city of Jericho in March 2014. The Middle East recently experienced its worst drought in 900 years, according to a new study from NASA. Ammar Awad/Reuters

A recent drought was the Middle East's worst in 900 years and may have been the result of climate change, according to a new study from NASA.

Countries that make up the Mediterranean Levant region—Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Turkey—felt the effects of the drought, which NASA said occured between 1998 and 2012 and was "likely the worst drought of the past nine centuries."

Scientists looked at tree rings to study the effects of the drought and determine when water started to become scarce; thin rings indicate dry years, while thicker rings show years with more water. They also measured the tree ring record against historical documents from the past few centuries. The tree rings showed that the most recent dry period between 1998 and 2012 was about 50 percent drier than the driest period in the past 500 years, and between 10 percent and 20 percent drier than the worst drought of the past nine centuries.

"If we look at recent events and we start to see anomalies that are outside this range of natural variability, then we can say with some confidence that it looks like this particular event or this series of events had some kind of human caused climate change contribution," Ben Cook, lead author of the study and a climate scientist at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University in New York City, said in a NASA press release.

The most recent drought was "exceptional" when compared to other dry periods over the past few centuries, according to the study, which was accepted for publication in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres last month.

A study published by the Earth Institute last year said climate change was partly to blame for the five-year conflict in Syria that has claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people. The drought, which affected an area known as the Fertile Crescent—encompassing parts of Syria, Turkey and Iraq—has warmed by 1.2 degrees Centigrade and has seen a 10 percent reduction in wet-season precipitation, according to the 2015 study.

"Syria was the country that was most poised to be destabilized," Richard Seager, a professor at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and a co-author of the 2015 study, said last year.

The newer study, which looked at tree rings from not only the Levant region but also from Spain, Greece and North Africa, concluded that there was also a drought in the West.

"Both for modern society and certainly ancient civilizations, it means that if one region was suffering the consequences of the drought, those conditions are likely to exist throughout the Mediterranean basin," said co-author Kevin Anchukaitis, a climate scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.