Science, Tech & Environment

Using weather patterns to predict global conflict

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Canadian Forces Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) removes debris from a Mogadishu street after a riot in 2006. (Photo by Flickr user expertinfantry)

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The conflict in Libya is at its heart about ending the decades old Gaddafi regime. The conflicts are often more complicated than they might appear. They're influenced by a complex set of factors, including perhaps, the weather.

A study published in the Journal Nature finds a significant correlation between the outbreak of conflict and the weather. More precisely, the study found a strong relationship between the outbreak in tropical countries and regular climate variations caused by the global climate patter, known as the El Niño/La Niña-cycle.

Dr. Solomon Hsiang was the lead author of the study, which he conducted as a doctoral candidate at Columbia University School of Public Affairs. He is now at Princeton University.

Hsiang looked back over more than 50 years of climate and conflict data for the study. He says hotter, dryer weather patterns doubles the risk of civil conflict in tropical countries.

"What we found was when the global climate was in the wetter, and cooler La Niña state, the risk of civil conflict in tropical countries was three in 100," Hsiang explained. "So if you'd have 100 countries, you would expect three to start a civil war in any given year. But then when the global climate shifts to its hotter and dryer El Niño state, we observed the risk of conflict actually doubles, all the way up to six percent, so six out of 100. This means that since 1950, El Niño has played a role in approximately 20 percent of all conflicts around the world."

Hsiang believes the models of El Niño from the study can forecast up to two years in advance.

"With this kind of advanced warning, we're hoping that governments, international aid groups, international organizations, can sort of provide advanced warnings both to people on the ground and perhaps prepare themselves better for anticipated periods of protracted conflicts," he said.

Read a transcript of this story on The World website.

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