How Climate Change is Fueling Iran’s Political Instability


Year after year after year for the past 15 years, it’s been the reality for Iran.

As with recent severe droughts in places like Syria, Nigeria, India and in other parts of the world, Iran’s drought impacts have forced farmers to abandon fields and move to the cities. It has enhanced economic and physical desperation — swelling the ranks of the poor and displaced. It has produced both food and water insecurity with many families now living from hand and cup to mouth. And it has served as a catalyst for political unrest, protest, and revolt.

(Iran’s Lake Urmia shrinks to ten percent of its former size following a 15 year long drought. Image source: U.S. Department of the Interior.)

Perhaps the most visible sign of this drought’s epic severity is the drying up of the 5,200 square mile expanse of Lake Urmia. The sixth largest salt water lake in the world and the largest lake in the Middle East, Urmia is now a desiccated shadow of its historical range. Just 10 percent of its former size, it is the casualty of both the drought and the dams that have been built to divert water to Iran’s struggling farmers. But it’s not just the lake that’s drying up. In the interior, individual provinces have seen as many as 1,100, or approximately 1/3 of its springs, run out of water.

Iran is on the eastern fringe of the worst drought to hit parts of the Middle East in 900 years. Ninety six percent of the country has been afflicted by escalating drought conditions over the past seven years. A drought so long and deep-running that it has been triggering unrest since at least 2014. A kind of climate change enhanced instability that has been intensifying over recent years.

(Iran shows long term precipitation deficits over 2016-2017 and 2010-2017 in this analysis provided by Iran’s Meteorological Organization.)

The growing drought-driven unrest has thrust climate change into the Iranian political spotlight even as populist farmer uprisings are on the increase. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has directed government to “manage climate change and environmental threats.” However, with climate harms so long-running and with distrust in government so deep, even positive action by Iran’s leaders may be viewed in a negative light. Hindering impetus for response and generating a ripe field for the revolt or fragmentation.

From the scientific perspective, it appears that the effects of climate change are already enhancing the most recent dry period. Temperatures are rising — which increases evaporation. So more rain has to fall for soils to retain moisture. Complicating this issue is the fact that rains are expected to decline by 10 percent even as drier soils are expected to reduce rainfall and snow melt runoff by 25 percent over the next twelve years. Both are impacts caused by climate change and the predicted warming of Iranian summers by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius.

(Under business as usual fossil fuel burning scenarios, wet bulb temperatures are expected to periodically exceed the range in which humans can healthily function over portions of the Persian Gulf region before the end of this Century. Video Source: MIT News.)

Moreover, a recent MIT study from 2015 found that major cities in the Persian Gulf region may be driven past the tipping point for human survivability under business as usual fossil fuel burning (Wet Bulb of 35 C +) by climate change before the end of this Century (see video above). This means that during the worst heatwaves under this scenario, it would be impossible for human beings to retain an internal temperature cool enough to support key body functions while outdoors for even moderate periods. This would result in higher incidences of heat injury and heat mortality than we see even during present enhanced heatwaves.

Though it is uncertain whether collapse pressure driven by climate change has reached a tipping point for Iran similar to the events which enabled Syria’s descent into internal and regional conflict, the warning signs are there. The international community would thus be wise to both prepare responses and to broadly acknowledge climate change’s role in the enflaming of this and other geopolitical hot spots.

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  1. Andy_in_SD

     /  January 20, 2018

    Unfortunately, this is not (and will not) be an isolated event. A contributing accelerator is the depletion of groundwater (fossil water) which is occurring from Texas to India to China etc… Mexico City being a case study unto itself with the subsistence. Once the rains stop, we mine the water and remain in a business as usual mode.

    If you look at the US, the focus on water stress is always the southwest. However, look at the semi arid desert extent. It sit on the Ogallala aquifer. The reason we have been able to turn that area into a food machine is due to the aquifer. So what happens when we are done pumping it out?

    • rhymeswithgoalie

       /  January 20, 2018

      Wells are being drilled deeper and deeper in California’s Central Valley, where so much of America’s food is grown. So much water has been pulled out in the last few decades that the Sierra Mountains are showing *isostatic rebound*, something usually associated with mass ice loss.

      • Andy_in_SD

         /  January 20, 2018

        Areas have dropped over 58 ft due to depletion in central valley. And once it compacts, it can not be replenished. The rebound makes sense. If one looks at Greenland, the rebound is 1.4mm/yr to 10mm/yr (depending on area) due to mass loss.

        In Sana’a Yemen, wells used to be 10m deep (30 ft). Due to drought and population increase, the wells are 1600m to 2km deep and running dry. India has a tremendous issue due to overrun on ground water. Areas are now turning to arid desert, leaving farmers to commit suicide. Saudi Arabia is the poster child for mismanagement of ground water. They have burned up 100 cubic km of subsurface water in 30 years (growing wheat in the desert). They have 6 cubic km left.

        We are doing the same here, but in differing rates (almost all exceed recharge rate). And if we don’t exceed discharge, hell lets frack it and pump effluent back down there.

        This is a huge global problem that began ages ago, but is now coming to a head as our population requires more water, and demands more beyond that for agriculture. Technology helps us slurp up the last drops.

        • g. orwell

           /  January 21, 2018

          “Areas have dropped over 58 ft due to depletion in central valley….”
          WHA!? what time frame?

        • wharf rat

           /  January 22, 2018

          “what time frame?”
          Signs on pole show approximate altitude of land surface in 1925, 1955, and 1977. The site is in the San Joaquin Valley southwest of Mendota, California.

    • Good points here, Andy.

  2. Eric Thurston

     /  January 20, 2018

    Extreme heat is affecting sports pretty severely. We will probably start seeing major sporting events either cancelled or held in closed in arenas with AC. But this can only go on for so long. Unfortunately, many in the developed world will see the sports issue as a bigger problem than the dried up farmland and the social and political unrest that the heat is bringing about.

    “Australian Open extreme heat policy to be reviewed as concerned players suffer”

  3. wili

     /  January 20, 2018

    And note:

    “Study finds that global warming exacerbates refugee crises”

  4. Looking at Iran’s drought zoning map, it just has to be mislabeled. The concentric zones are in decreasing severity according to the coloring with the descriptions, and that doesn’t make sense

  5. Jeremy in Wales

     /  January 20, 2018

    It is snowing again thi smorning in Wales so a little silliness, it is becoming a thing to give snowploughs/gritters names, so in Scotland there are snowploughs known as Gritty Gritty Bang Bang, Sir Salter Scott, Luke Snow walker and Doncaster has a David Plowie,

  6. Jeremy in Wales

     /  January 20, 2018

    In the colder weather this year I have been making sure that the bird feeder in the garden is well stocked with peanuts, mixed seeds, suet and fat balls. The small birds especially need a helping hand and in return they put on an entertaining display. So far I have seen Crows, Jackdaws, Wood Pigeon, Collared Doves, Gold Finch, Coal Tits, Blue Tits, Starling, Blackbird and Sparrows. The Jackdaw demolished one feeder.
    In the UK feeding birds is very popular. Is it common in the USA, Canada?

    • Robert in New Orleans

       /  January 20, 2018

      I can not answer the for the rest of the USA, but I have a small bird feeder in my backyard for the local birds. All I can say is the neighborhood Cardinals, Wood Doves and smaller birds seem to be vigorous and healthy. The male Cardinals are bright red and appear very robust.

      • wili

         /  January 22, 2018

        There are some problems with bird feeders. They concentrate lots of birds around one small location, making it more likely to pass on to other birds any infections that some of them might have.

        I choose to make my whole yard a ‘bird feeder’ by planting native grasses and flowers whose seed heads provide diffuse sources of food over the winter.

  7. Dave McGinnis

     /  January 20, 2018

    I’d say if a drought goes on for 15 years then it is no longer anomalous — it is the new normal and the climate has already changed. Back in the 70s they were cloud-seeding in the Alborz Mts, probably still are. Thanks for this update.

  8. Robert in New Orleans

     /  January 20, 2018

    When Iran becomes unlivable, will the Iranians migrate into Russia and what will Russia do to stem this flow of desperate migrants north?

  9. Keith Antonysen

     /  January 21, 2018

    Meanwhile, the Federal Australian Government is negotiating with Adani in relation to a loan. Adani is not able to gain a loan from sensible International or Australian Banks.

    • generativity

       /  January 21, 2018

      Shameless stubborness
      By Public Representatives over foolishness…
      Consequential water waste alone already should’ve closed the door on Adani advocates.


    The Holmes a Court Name is the bluest of blue bloods in Australia – long Liberal/Conservative tradition – but with the ancient understanding of his heritage as shown in his passion and his writing which the wealthy and powerful today do not comprehend.

    Noblesse Oblige.

    The Obligation of the Nobility to their God, King, their subjects and the land and environment in return for their exalted position

  11. miles h

     /  January 21, 2018

    meanwhile in S Africa… Cape Town is running out of water, and rationing is kicking in…

  12. For all the progress we have made in clean energy, CO2 levels are still increasing at record rates. I believe myself that clean energy, while necessary to fight global warming, is insufficient to solve the problem by itself. To solve the CO2 problem, we’re going to have to progress beyond carbon neutral to carbon negative, and actually start putting carbon back underground. If the scientists are not able to provide direct air capture of CO2 at a reasonable cost, we’re going to have to go to BECCS – Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage, I think.

    Elon Musk and Tesla (and Robert, for that matter) have shown what can be done by honest intelligent people who are highly motivated to solve problems. That’s what’s needed to solve the BECCS problem- an approach similar to that of Elon Musk and Tesla, I think.

    If it’s only a matter of a few decades at higher CO2 levels, before we turn the corner and bring greenhouse gas concentrations down, shelters could be built for the few days per year it is impossible to go outdoors. One such shelter idea for individuals might involve a ground to air heat exchanger, like in this paper from Iran:

    For larger shelters, it should be possible to store cold water in an aquifer in the winter, then use that water to chill shelters during heat death emergencies.

    If we don’t succeed in bringing the rate of CO2 addition to the atmosphere down, though, mass migration seems to be the only alternative.

  13. kassy

     /  January 21, 2018

    And if that happens what will happen first? People moving out due to heat stress or large scale sea level rise. It would be a very horrible world. And it’s not like the Syrian refugees were that welcome even when we could see the horrors there on TV a lot.

    There is no reason to think climate refugees will be more welcome. Their dispersal will be different however. In the Syrian conflict the majority of refugees stayed relatively close to home. Some 6 million were internal Syrian refugees and 3 million stayed in Turkey.

    About a million went to Europe.

    Now if this would be a heat event as we see in the future the 6 million internal refugees will move out too increasing the stress on the neighbouring countries and the EU too. Oh and the 8 million or so not inclined to move now would also have to relocate and that is just Syria.

    numbers from:

    I think that for many politicians climate change is still too abstract but most of them understand migration and what it means to their constituents. Maybe we should tell them that this is what they are trying to prevent.

  14. Greg

     /  January 21, 2018

    John Coleman, prominent climate change denier and co-founder if the weather channel has died. RIP

  15. Nasty carbon monoxide map of China from Earth Nullschool:,38.32,1282/loc=114.627,33.656

    Don’t know what is going on in China, but open air carbon monoxide levels are up around 3000-4000 ppb in the open air over wide areas of northern China, and have been for weeks.

    I’m going to guess this is normal Chinese manufacturing and coal power related air pollution, combined with agricultural burning. Generally, though, Earth Nullshool only seems to show levels like this during major wildfires. China is always high with carbon monoxide, but not this high.

    3-4 ppm is high enough to cause some health risks to fetuses, I think, if applied over a long enough period of time. People with respiratory issues might also be at risk.

    Lets hope that the Chinese continue their expansion of solar energy capacity, and stop building coal fired power plants.

  16. Sea surface temperature anomalies persist near Svalbard, east of Greenland:,75.17,1688/loc=5.893,78.012

    These twin temperature anomalies have been there, mostly unchanged, summer and winter, since 2015, according to Earth Nullshool, which uses data from NASA. What is causing them is a mystery, and it’s a mystery nobody in the press seems to be talking about.

    I’m guessing they may be somehow connected to warmer water ultimately originating in the Gulf Stream activating dissociation of methane hydrates on the on the ocean bottom.

    The eastern anomaly is close to huge methane vents caused by relic metastable methane hydrate dissociation left over from past glaciations, according to reports on this blog and elsewhere in the past.

    The western anomaly is close to recently discovered new ridges containing large amounts of abiogenic methane hydrate.

    I could see these anomalies being due to a loss of sea ice cover in the winter and spring…but not in the summer and fall.

    I do wish that real experts on these phenomena would speak up about them, and offer us an alternate coherent explanation of them. Because if this is tied to methane hydrate dissociation, the world needs to know about it, I think. These could be irreversible effects of global warming, and could make the fight against global warming much harder, I think.

    • Here is an image of these sea surface temperature anomalies from August of 2015:

    • Hilary

       /  January 22, 2018

      This is link to Svalbard’s Zeppelin station methane readings, certainly showing a steady rise even with methane’s relatively short lifespan in the atmosphere.

    • Here is the link to Robert’s coverage of a scientific paper showing massive methane vents created by dissociation of relic methane hydrate left over from previous glaciations. These vents are in the same general area as the eastern persistent sea surface temperature anomaly near Svalbard.

      This is relic methane hydrate, formed under the pressure of an overlying ice sheet, and most of it is likely outside the methane hydrate stability zone now. This makes it extremely susceptible to dissociation from small temperature changes, likely.

      This relic methane hydrate may be a big problem in the future. The sudden craters showing up in Siberia may be due to relic methane hydrate. This hydrate is in a “metastable” state, meaning that is is in a persistent state of instability lacking only an input of heat to trigger dissociation.

      Speculating, warm water from the Norwegian and West Spitsbergen currents, heated by an anomalously hot Gulf Stream, may be triggering methane hydrate dissociation in this area, and that may be tied to these very persistent and localized sea surface anomalies near Svalbard.

      • One thing I didn’t mention – the Barents Sea, site of the eastern sea surface temperature anomaly, is shallow – a couple hundred meters deep. This is bad, because pressure helps keep methane hydrate stable.

        So, in the Barents sea, we have a shallow region of relic metastable methane hydrate, subjected to warmer than usual currents originating in an anomalously warm Gulf Stream. This could be a very bad set of circumstances.

        I need to investigate more the possibility of a fresh water insulating layer on the surface, due to sea ice melt, and the role algal blooms might be playing in all of this. Algal blooms might also be a sign of methane hydrate dissociation, along with acidification. Whatever is going on, these sea surface temperature anomalies, lasting so long, all year long, do not seem normal.

  17. Leland
    As always, appreciate your updates.

  18. P.S. Checked Metop-2 @ 469 mb, today methane to 2576.
    Per Sam Carana was 2764 on Jan 1.

  19. redskylite

     /  January 22, 2018

    Good summary in the Climate News Network on the state of the climate after 2017:

    “There comes a further revelation: 2017 was also the warmest year on record for the global oceans.

    Both disclosures are consistent with what scientists had expected from climate change, driven by global warming as a consequence of the profligate combustion of fossil fuels that dump ever greater levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

    But they add to the scientists’ sense of urgency at the need for rapid and radical action to cut greenhouse emissions.

    . . . . . .

    The news that the oceans are continuing to warm to hitherto unknown levels comes in an updated ocean analysis from the Institute of Atmospheric Physics/Chinese Academy of Science (IAP/CAS). Its study was published as an early online release in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences.

    “The biggest natural influence on the climate is being dwarfed by human activities – predominantly CO₂ emissions”

    . . .

    Arctic warmth has been especially pronounced, and this will have profound and long-lasting repercussions on sea levels, and on weather patterns in other parts of the world.”

  20. kassy

     /  January 22, 2018

    The claim of reduced uncertainty for equilibrium climate sensitivity is premature

    Cox et al. assumed that the same feedback mechanisms are involved in both natural variations and a climate change due to increased CO2. This means that we should expect a high climate sensitivity if there are pronounced natural variations.

    But it is not that simple, as different feedback mechanisms are associated with different time scales. Some are expected to react rapidly, but others associated with the oceans and the carbon cycle may be more sluggish. There could also be tipping points, which would imply a high climate sensitivity.

    The Hasselmann model is of course a gross simplification of the real climate system, and such a crude analytical framework implies low precision for when the results are transferred to the real world.

  21. Here we go round the mulberry bush
    The Trump administration has waived part of the punishment for five megabanks whose affiliates were convicted and fined for manipulating global interest rates. One of the Trump administration waivers was granted to Deutsche Bank — which is owed at least $130 million by President Donald Trump and his business empire, and has also been fined for its role in a Russian money laundering scheme.

    The waivers were issued in a little-noticed announcement published in the Federal Register during the Christmas holiday week. They come less than two years after then-candidate Trump promised “I’m not going to let Wall Street get away with murder.”

    Under laws designed to protect retirement savings, financial firms whose affiliates have been convicted of violating securities statutes are effectively barred from the lucrative business of managing those savings. However, that punishment can be avoided if the firms manage to secure a special exemption from the U.S. Department of Labor, allowing them to keep their status as “qualified professional asset managers.”

    In late 2016, the Obama administration extended temporary one-year waivers to five banks — Citigroup, JPMorgan, Barclays, UBS and Deutsche Bank. Late last month, the Trump administration issued new, longer waivers for those same banks, granting Citigroup, JPMorgan, and Barclays five-year exemptions. UBS and Deutsche Bank received three-year exemptions.

    In the year leading up to the new waiver for Deustche Bank, Trump’s financial relationship with the firm has prompted allegations of a conflict of interest. The bank has not only sought the Labor Department waiver from the administration, it has also faced Justice Department scrutiny and five separate government-appointed independent monitors. Meanwhile, the New York Times recently reported that federal prosecutors subpoenaed Deutsche for “bank records about entities associated with the family company of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser.”

    All of these interactions with the Trump administration and the federal government are transpiring as Deutsche serves as a key creditor for the president’s businesses.

  22. High geothermal heat flux in close proximity to the Northeast Greenland Ice Stream
    Søren Rysgaard et. al. Scientific Reports 8, Article number: 1344 (2018)


    The Greenland ice sheet (GIS) is losing mass at an increasing rate due to surface melt and flow acceleration in outlet glaciers. Currently, there is a large disagreement between observed and simulated ice flow, which may arise from inaccurate parameterization of basal motion, subglacial hydrology or geothermal heat sources. Recently it was suggested that there may be a hidden heat source beneath GIS caused by a higher than expected geothermal heat flux (GHF) from the Earth’s interior. Here we present the first direct measurements of GHF from beneath a deep fjord basin in Northeast Greenland. Temperature and salinity time series (2005–2015) in the deep stagnant basin water are used to quantify a GHF of 93 ± 21 mW m−2 which confirm previous indirect estimated values below GIS. A compilation of heat flux recordings from Greenland show the existence of geothermal heat sources beneath GIS and could explain high glacial ice speed areas such as the Northeast Greenland ice stream.

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