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Pollen-inferred palaeoclimatic patterns in Syria during the Little Ice Age

Le climat du petit âge de glace en Syrie à partir des données polliniques
David Kaniewski and Elise Van Campo
p. 139-144


The alluvial deposits from Jableh (coastal Syria) and the Wadi Jarrah (inland Syria) have provided unique records of environmental history covering the last 1000 years. The pollen-derived climatic proxies inferred from these two cores suggest that a shift towards drier conditions started during the early 15th century AD. The main dry and cool interval recorded both in coastal and inland Syria occurred from ca. 1500 to 1850 cal yr AD, a time frame encompassing the Little Ice Age. In Syria, the Little Ice Age is not only cooler, but also much drier than the Medieval Climate Anomaly and the present-day climate. Despite a strong human presence in Syria throughout the last millennia, climate rather than human activities seem to be the driving force behind the natural vegetation dynamics in these regions.

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Support was provided by the Institut Universitaire de France, CLIMSORIENT program, and by the PAI PVI/34 (Belspo) project.

1The Little Ice Age (LIA) is a prominent climate shift defined on the basis of glacier advances in Europe, and cooler climate conditions throughout the Northern Hemisphere (GROVE, 2004). The LIA is the most recent Holocene Rapid Climate Change (RCC), as defined by MAYEWSKI et al., (2004). Whilst the term LIA refers to a distinct climate event, occurring over a distinct time period (AD 1550-1850), palaeoclimatic reconstructions reveal a complex spatial and temporal expression of the event, and marked by regional differences, both in in terms of its thermal and hydrological expressions (MANN et al., 2009). Reconstructions of precipitation during the LIA are less frequent than those of temperature. However, the impacts of hydrological changes during RCCs are of major importance in the densely populated Mediterranean basin, which suffers annual or seasonal negative precipitation minus evaporation (P-E) anomalies, and is likely to undergo more frequent droughts in the near future (GIORGI and LIONELLO, 2007). East of the basin, the northern Arabian Peninsula is a climate change hotspot, at the crossroad between Mediterranean, continental and subtropical climates (ALPERT et al., 2008), but few palaeoenvironmental records span the LIA in the Middle East. In Crete, reports and letters mention drought, cold winters, great heat and out-of-season rainfall, indicating severe climatic conditions between AD 1548 and 1648 (GROVE, 2001). Fluvial geomorphology of the Gialias river watershed in central Cyprus suggests a humid LIA, although aridity is well expressed at the end of the Ottoman period (DEVILLERS and LECUYER, 2008). A dry LIA is evidenced by strong increases of ∂18O values at Ashdod coast (SCHILMAN et al., 2001, 2002) and Soreq Cave (BAR‑MATTHEWS et al., 2003) in Israël. A data/model approach over the Mediterranean regions during the last 500 years tentatively identified the main atmospheric changes associated to the observed climate changes (BREWER et al., 2007). Two recently published Syrian pollen-derived climate records, one from Jableh on the northwestern coast (KANIEWSKI et al., 2011a, 2011b) and the second from the Wadi Jarrah in the northeastern Khabur Plains (KANIEWSKI et al., 2012), document the environmental response in the region during the LIA.

1 - Syrian sites

1.1 - Jableh

2Jableh is a Syrian coastal town (Fig. 1) located 28 km south of the modern harbour of Latakia, and 40 km south of the famous port city of Ugarit in ancient northern Phoenicia.

Fig. 1 – Map of the Eastern Mediterranean showing the location of Jableh in coastal Syria and the Wadi Jarrah near the Iraqi borderline

Fig. 1 – Map of the Eastern Mediterranean showing the location of Jableh in coastal Syria and the Wadi Jarrah near the Iraqi borderline

3Jableh enjoys a typical Mediterranean climate with cool, wet winters and hot, dry summers. The mean annual temperature and precipitation at Latakia (35.5 N, 35.8 E, 7 m a.s.l., 1960‑1990) are 19.5°C and 811.4 mm, respectively. Most of the cold-season precipitation is a result of mid‑latitude troughs that propagate from the North Atlantic Ocean and reactivate over the Eastern Mediterranean sea (ZIV et al., 2010). During summer, the subtropical high pressure system almost completely inhibits rainfall. The total rainfall between June to September at Latakia is less than 17 mm. The Syrian coastal lowland has an estimated surface area of about 500 km2 and belongs to the Eu-Mediterranean biogeographical zone (ZOHARY, 1973). It is one of the most fertile regions of Syria and is nowadays under arbori-, horti- and agriculture. About 25% of the surface is irrigated with waters stored in artificial lakes built in different catchments. The main cultivated species are Citrus limonum, C. sinensis, Nicotiana rustica, Prunus dulcis, Solanum lycopersicum, Zea mays and Olea europaea (abandoned trees). A xeric steppe with desert scrubs and thorny-shrubs (Artemisia herba-alba, Ephedra fragilis, Juniperus oxycedrus, Noaea mucronata, Prosopis stephaniana, Sarcopoterium spinosum, Zizyphus lotus) grows in the drier rain-fed spots. Other woods/shrubs (Tamarix sp., Pistacia atlantica, Crataegus azarolus, Styrax officinalis and Ceratonia siliqua) are concentrated in the wet valley bottoms. Coastal Syria is delimited towards in the east by the Jabal an Nuşayrīyah, a 140 km long north-south mountain range parallel to the coast and featuring peaks above 1200 m a.s.l. The 650 km2 forest area on the Jabal an Nuşayrīyah consists of oak-Juniper woodlands (Quercus calliprinos, Quercus aegilops, Quercus infectoria, Juniperus excelsa) with rare cedars (Cedrus libani), and degraded pine forest (Pinus brutia and rare Pinus halepensis). Vitis vinifera is lacking.

4The pollen record, which was selected to investigate the signature of climate change during the last millennium, comes from thick alluvial deposits near Jableh. The 315 cm core TW-2 (35°22’13.16’’N, 35°56’11.36’’E; 16.06 m a.s.l.) was retrieved within a 50 m broad floodplain of a first order spring-fed valley, at 1.7 km from the coast. No gaps or unconformities were observed in the core log and laboratory data. The chronology is based on three accelerator mass spectrometry (AMS) 14C ages on charcoals. The sequence covers the last millennium, from ca. 850 cal yr AD to ca. 1900 cal yr AD. Compaction corrected deposition rates have been computed between the intercepts of adjacent 14C ages. Because samples have been taken at regular distances on the sediment column, the time resolution is directly dependent on the sedimentation rate. The calculated time resolution between 2 samples is less than 10 yr from 885 to 1168 cal yr AD, about 70 yr from 1168 to 1640 cal yr AD, and about 20 yr from 1640 to 1870 cal yr AD.

1.2 - Wadi Jarrah

5The Wadi Jarrah (36°51’ 51.52’’N; 41°14’15.15’’E) is a dry river‑channel from the Khabur plains of northeastern Syria, located 20 km south of the Turkish border and 40 km north of the Iraqi border, at the heart of ancient northern Mesopotamia (Fig. 1). The region lies in the steppe vegetation class of Artemisietea herbae–albae mesopotamica, which includes dwarf-shrub or herbaceous formations of the Irano-Turanian territories (ZOHARY, 1973). The vegetation has been overgrazed and deprived of its shrubby constituents by climate and ancient human pressure. The Khabur plain is characterized by a steep north‑south rainfall gradient and high inter‑annual climate variability. North of the plain, rainfall amounts reach ca. 475 mm (WEISS, 1986), whereas southwards at Al Hassakah (36°29’40.46”N; 40°46’05.88”E; 313 m a.s.l.), mean annual precipitation and temperature are about 290 mm and 18°C, respectively. The rainy season extends from December to April, whereas rainfall in June, July and August accounts for only 0.2 % of the annual total. The Khabur river, southernmost major tributary of the Euphrates system, rises in Southern Anatolia and grows substantially from the input of major karstic springs after crossing the Turkey-Syria border. The springs are fed by aquifer systems consisting of Eocene limestones with subsidiary supplies from Miocene deposits, and recharged by precipitation falling on Turkish mountains (BURDON and SAFADI, 1963). A steep precipitation gradient runs from the mountains of Turkey and northern Iraq (MAP > 1000 mm) to the Euphrates plain (MAP < 100 mm). The southern limit of productive rain-fed agriculture lies between 200 and 300 mm.yr-1 (HOLE, 2009). Nowadays, this line bisects the basin of the Khabur River, the southernmost major tributary to the Euphrates system, into a northern portion, where rain-fed agriculture is possible, and a southern portion, where all crops require irrigation. The traditional agriculture, characterized by rain-fed cultivation or gravity-flow irrigation, is mainly concentrated on barley (Hordeum vulgare) (HÜTTEROTH, 1998; Mc CORRISTON and WEISBERG, 2002), due to its high resistance to salinity and tolerance to poor soils (JACOBSEN and ADAMS, 1981). Non-irrigated crops are particularly sensitive to precipitation variability that may affect the area, a key factor on crop yields, productivity, and economic systems (TRIGO et al., 2010).

6The pollen record was retrieved from 210-cm sedimentary deposits within the Wadi Jarrah. The deposits consist of dark, sandy silts with gravels, overlying muddy clays containing gasteropod and pelecypod shells. The chronology is based on five AMS 14C ages on plant remains. The sequence covers about the last 1400 years.

2 - Methods

7A total of 51 samples at Jableh, and 40 samples at Wadi  Jarrah, were prepared for pollen analysis using the standard palynological procedures (FAEGRI and IVERSEN, 1989). The prepared residues were mounted unstained in bi-distilled glycerine. Pollen grains were counted under x 400 and x 1000 magnification using an Olympus microscope. Hygrophytes‑hydrophytes taxa frequencies are based on the total pollen sum, including terrestrial pollen and spores of non-vascular cryptogams. The biomization procedure was applied to pollen data from the Jableh and Wadi Jarrah sites to assign consistent biome labels to palaeoecological records from coastal and inland Syria. This method is based on (1) the allocation of pollen taxa to plant functional types (PFTs), (2) the definition of biomes according to their constituent PFTs and (3) the calculation of the affinity score between a pollen spectrum and every biome. The pollen spectrum is allocated to the biome which has the highest affinity score (PRENTICE et al., 1996). The method has proved robust with respect to human impacts on vegetation (PRENTICE et al., 1996; KANIEWSKI et al., 2011a). The pollen‑derived Biomes (PdBs) are similar to the regional studies in the Mediterranean and Kazakhstan (TARASOV et al., 1998). Five PdBs were inferred from the Syrian data sets featuring Desert (DESE), Steppe (STEP), Xerophytic woods/shrubs (XERO), Warm mixed forest (WAMX) and Temperate deciduous forest (TEDE). The PdBs scores (Figs. 2-3) and relative values of hygro-hydrophilous pollen taxa (Fig. 4) have been plotted on a linear timescale for each site.

Fig. 2 – PdBs scores from the Syrian coastal area for the period 850‑1950 cal yr AD

Fig. 2 – PdBs scores from the Syrian coastal area for the period 850‑1950 cal yr AD

The driest phase is underlined in grey.

Fig. 3 PdBs scores from the Syrian inland area for the period 400-1950 cal yr AD.

Fig. 3 – PdBs scores from the Syrian inland area for the period 400-1950 cal yr AD.

The driest phase is underlined in grey.

3 - Results and discussion

8The pollen-based biome reconstruction reveals the major broad-scale environmental changes. Intervals of highest scores in DESE and STEP PdBs suggest periods of driest environments. Higher effective moisture is inferred during intervals of highest scores of XERO, WAMX and TEDE, while higher precipitation may have favoured the presence of trees. Highest hydro-hygrophilous plant pollen frequencies mainly indicate local positive precipitation/evaporation (P-E) balance around the sites under wet conditions.

9The overall variation in the pollen data, accounted for the PdBs scores, suggests a progressive decline of the effective moisture after ca. 1400 cal yr AD in the Jableh (Fig. 2) and Wadi Jarrah (Fig. 3) environments as a result of the combined effect of temperature and precipitation fluctuations. The development of the DESE and STEP PdBs after ca. 1400 cal yr AD, and its dominance until ca. 1850 cal yr AD, clearly depicts an overall drying trend during the LIA across Syria (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4 – Hygro- and hydrophilous herbs in coastal (upper curve) and inland (lower curve) areas

Fig. 4 – Hygro- and hydrophilous herbs in coastal (upper curve) and inland (lower curve) areas

The driest phases are underlined in grey.

10Putting these results in a wider context, we compare climate conditions across Syria with other Mediterranean records including the LIA. In the Eastern Mediterranean, the Soreq Cave is located in central Israel, under a semiarid climate with an annual rainfall of ca. 500 mm. The Soreq ∂ 18O record documents a dry event ca. 300 yr BP (ca. 1650 cal yr AD) (BAR-MATTHEWS et al., 2003). The nearby high-resolution, well-dated ∂18O record of the planktonic foraminifera Globigerinoides ruber from two cores off the Ashdod coast mainly reflect changes in the evaporation to precipitation ratio (SCHILMAN et al., 2001, 2002). High ∂18O peak values show the same trend towards aridity as indicated by the increasing values of the Soreq speleothem during the LIA time interval. Reconstructions of spring/ summer precipitation for the Eastern Mediterranean from tree-ring widths indicate high variability in extreme wet and dry events until the late 16th century (GRIGGS et al., 2007; TOUCHAN et al., 2007). The longest dry period (1591-1595 cal yr AD) occurred only once during the last 600 years. The isotope record of Nar Gölü, a crater lake in central Turkey, shows that periods northern glacier advance during the LIA are recorded at the same time as the more positive ∂18O values, i.e. a negative water balance in Turkey (JONES et al., 2006). Both Syrian records (Figs. 2‑3) are coherent with the hydroclimatic pattern of historical climates changes in the Eastern Mediterranean. Dry conditions are widely recorded during the LIA. However, several lines of evidence suggest that LIA hydroclimatic conditions were contrasting in the western and eastern parts of the Mediterranean basin. Cedrus atlantica ring width data were used to reconstruct long‑term changes in the Palmer Drought Severity Index over the past millennium in Morocco (ESPER et al., 2007). The Moroccan record clearly indicates wetter conditions after the 15th century AD. Combined terrestrial and marine geochemical proxies from the Alboran Sea and southwestern Iberian Peninsula show that the onset of the LIA is characterized by an increase in precipitation (MARTIN-PUERTAS et al., 2010). Other Iberian records show a noticeable increase of palaeo-flood events during the LIA (MORENO et al., 2008; Benito et al., 2008).

11As noted earlier, the LIA was primarily defined by a prolonged cooler climate from the 16th to the 19th centuries AD (MANN et al., 2009), although this cooling varied from place to place and was not exactly synchronous between sites. Three major climate forcings have likely played a role in the causes, timing and geographical extent of the LIA: changes in solar output (BARD et al., 2000; SWINGEDOUW et al., 2011), increased volcanic activity (STOTHERS, 1999; CROWLEY and LOWERY, 2000), and internal climatic variability, largely driven by ocean-atmosphere interactions (TROUET et al., 2009). All these mechanisms may have interacted to produce the complex spatial and temporal structure of the event. The last millennium North Atlantic marine records, supported by a number of numerical simulations, are consistent with the hypothesis that the LIA was characterized by a pervasive negative state of the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) (TROUET et al., 2009). The control exerted by the NAO on the storm tracks affecting the Mediterranean is stronger in the western and northern Mediterranean regions (Trigo et al., 2004). The regionalized Mediterranean rainfall patterns can be partly explained by the relationships between these patterns and large‑scale atmospheric dynamics on inter-decadal timescales. They show that the winter pattern accounting for the largest part of the rainfall variance represents an west-east oscillating system with prevailing opposite pressure (mainly at upper levels) and surface conditions, referred to as the Mediterranean Oscillation (MO) (DUNKELOH and JACOBEIT, 2003). A strong correlation between this winter pattern and the NAO suggests a connection between the MO and the hemispheric modes of the NAO. Dominating negative modes of this circulation-precipitation winter pattern would have dominated during the LIA.


12Our data from coastal and inland Syria reveal that the region experienced reduced precipitation during the LIA. These data are consistent with an Eastern Mediterranean-wide assessment of LIA drier conditions, with contrasting wetter conditions in the Western basin. In order to refine scenarios for the environmental and hydrological impacts of future climate changes, it is critical to further document the exact nature and mechanisms of historical climatic variability at the opposite ends of the Mediterranean basin.

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List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1 – Map of the Eastern Mediterranean showing the location of Jableh in coastal Syria and the Wadi Jarrah near the Iraqi borderline
File image/png, 610k
Title Fig. 2 – PdBs scores from the Syrian coastal area for the period 850‑1950 cal yr AD
Caption The driest phase is underlined in grey.
File image/png, 178k
Title Fig. 3 – PdBs scores from the Syrian inland area for the period 400-1950 cal yr AD.
Caption The driest phase is underlined in grey.
File image/png, 70k
Title Fig. 4 – Hygro- and hydrophilous herbs in coastal (upper curve) and inland (lower curve) areas
Caption The driest phases are underlined in grey.
File image/png, 39k
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Bibliographical reference

David Kaniewski and Elise Van Campo, « Pollen-inferred palaeoclimatic patterns in Syria during the Little Ice Age », Méditerranée, 122 | 2014, 139-144.

Electronic reference

David Kaniewski and Elise Van Campo, « Pollen-inferred palaeoclimatic patterns in Syria during the Little Ice Age », Méditerranée [Online], 122 | 2014, Online since 19 June 2016, connection on 14 November 2019. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/mediterranee.7220

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About the authors

David Kaniewski

Université Paul Sabatier-Toulouse, France, EcoLab (Laboratoire d’écologie fonctionnelle et environnement, Institut universitaire de France, Paris,

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Elise Van Campo

Université Paul Sabatier-Toulouse, France, EcoLab (Laboratoire d’écologie fonctionnelle et environnement),

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