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Investigating the Spatio-Temporal Dynamics of the Syrian Civil War through Spaceborne Thermal Infrared Data: Implications for Human Rights


Many events associated with violent conflict result in the ignition of fires. This phenomenon can take the form of intentional acts of arson such as the burning of buildings, the unintended ignition of flammable materials from the effects of ordinance, the burning of debris as part of reconstruction efforts, or the destruction of evidence related to possible war crimes, to name just a few possible examples. While fires burn, the attendant high temperatures result in significant emissions of infrared radiation across a range of wavelengths defined by Planck’s law. This radiation can be detected by sensors optimized to collect data from the region of the electromagnetic spectrum known as the “thermal infrared”, which spans a region ranging from approximately three to fifty microns in wavelength. A large number of such sensors currently exist, some of which have been placed on Earth-observing satellites, and are used to study phenomena ranging from volcanic eruptions to forest fires to clandestine gas flaring. These sensors can also be used to study fires resulting from conflict, as shown by the work of Bromley (2010). Subsequent damage analyses by groups such as UNOSAT have likewise used infrared data to supplement high-resolution satellite imagery analysis of conflict zones in areas such as Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. Although the work of Bromley shows that trends in satellite fire detections can be related to conflict activity in Darfur on a regional scale after the fact, whether this data product can be used to identify spatial and temporal variation in conflict-related fires at the city level, whether it can provide relevant insights into a more industrialized conflict than the violence in Darfur, or whether it has the potential to be a leading indicator of events that later result in significant news events, remains unclear. If such insights can be obtained through infrared fire detections, the human rights implications would be significant, as it would allow a more rapid identification of and response to the escalation of violent conflict. This work attempts to answer these questions by exploring what trends can be discerned in thermal infrared satellite data of the Syrian Civil War at a variety of spatial scales.