Iraq Marsh Woes - Man & Nature

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MODIS Image 2001
Mike Moss

Those of you who read our AskGreg questions or watched last week's edition of Web Weather Wednesdays have seen some discussion that arose from a question sent to us from a deployed National Guardsman about factors influencing dust storms in Iraq. One of the issues that we mentioned was the increase in dust associated with dried river beds and marshland areas associated in part with water diversion and dams upstream that gradually increased through the 1970s and 1980s, but then suddenly became much more severe with the punitive draining of the marsh areas within the lower reaches of the Mesopotamian alluvial plain across the southeastern half of Iraq where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flatten and intertwine. These areas were largely drained by Saddam Hussein's regime in the early '90s following the first Gulf War, driving out residents and creating an increase in source regions for very fine, silty, almost talcum-like dust.

Following the fall of Saddam's government in 2003, the United Nations undertook a project to restore the marshes and reverse the loss of agriculture and aquaculture through the region, an effort that began to yield notable results by 2004 and 2005, notwithstanding some continuing issues with diversion of water upstream in Turkey and Syria, closer to the headwaters of the two rivers in the Taurus Mountains. Unfortunately, a serious drought set in around 2006 into 2007, and that has almost undone the restoration efforts for the time being, making the marshlands again a very dry area by historical norms. The same drought has also created devastating losses to agriculture across other parts of Iraq and a significant portion of the Fertile Crescent region in general.

The images I've attached are from NASA's Earth Observatory web page, and show a part of the lower Tigris-Euphrates plain in true color, as seen by the Terra satellite and its Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer in February of 2001 and 2005 and March of 2009. The dry character of the region resulting from the drainage undertaken in the early '90s is evident in the first picture, followed by a wetter and greener appearance a couple of years into the U.N. restoration program, but then a notably drier appearance again by 2009 as the drought of the past 3 years or so continues.

I included a link to the NASA site that hosts these photos, where you can find a more complete discussion and a series of 10 similar images running from 2000 to 2009. They can be lapsed by clicking the "Play" link below the right hand side of the image, for a more detailed look at how the moisture in this region has varied through the decade.

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