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Could all of North Africa and the Middle East end up like this? Berber people in the Sahara Desert in Morrocco, close to the Algerian border, August 2009. Photo: 16:9clue via Flickr (CC BY).
Could all of North Africa and the Middle East end up like this? Berber people in the Sahara Desert in Morrocco, close to the Algerian border, August 2009. Photo: 16:9clue via Flickr (CC BY).
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Searing heat may spark Middle East, North Africa climate exodus

Tim Radford

17th May 2016

Temperatures in the Middle East and North Africa could reach unbearably high levels by mid-century, writes Tim Radford - and then keep on rising. The intolerable heat would render large areas uninhabitable and give rise to a wave of 'climate refugees' seeking escape to more temperate regions.

Climate change will significantly worsen the living conditions in the Middle East and in North Africa. Prolonged heatwaves and desert dust storms can render some regions uninhabitable, which will surely contribute to the pressure to migrate.

Parts of the Middle East and North Africa could become unbearably hot if greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.

New research predicts that, by mid-century, summer temperatures will stay above 30C at night and could rise to 46°C during the day.

By the end of the century, maximum temperatures could reach 50C, and this could happen more often. Instead of 16 days of extreme heat, there could be 80 days.

"In future, the climate in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) could change in such a manner that the very existence of its inhabitants is in jeopardy", says Jos Lelieveld, director of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany.

He and colleagues report in the journal Climatic Change that they used computer models to explore changes in temperature patterns in the MENA region in the 21st century. Global warming happens unevenly, and many regions are experiencing warmer winters - with earlier growing seasons - but not necessarily many more extremes in summer heat.

200 'unusually hot' days a year by 2100?

But the pattern around the Eastern Mediterranean and in the landscapes of Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco is one of increasing summer heat.

Between 1986 and 2005, the average number of 'very hot' days was 16. By mid-century, this could reach 80 days a year. By the end of the century, even if greenhouse gas emissions decline after 2040, the number of sweltering days could soar to 118.

"If mankind continues to release carbon dioxide as it does now, people living in the Middle East and North Africa will have to expect about 200 unusually hot days [per year], according to the model projections", says Panos Hadjinicolaou, associate professor at the Cyprus Institute and a co-author of the report.

Prof Lelieveld and another co-author from the Cyprus Institute took part in a study of changing atmospheric conditions, to see what aerosol concentrations in the atmosphere could tell climate science about soil moisture trends in the region's arid landscapes.

They report in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics that as soils have dried, dust emissions have increased - by 70% over Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria since the beginning of this century.

Climate researchers have repeatedly warned that extremes of heat will become the 'new normal' at most latitudes. However, those countries that already experience the most relentless summer heat could become increasingly unhealthy and unstable.

Near-lethal conditions

One research team recently took a close look not just at heat but at potential humidity levels around the Gulf, and found that conditions could in some circumstances one day become near-lethal. So the latest studies are more confirmation than revelation.

The researchers considered what would happen if the world adopted the notorious 'business-as-usual' scenario and did nothing significant to control greenhouse gas emissions.

They also considered a scenario in which the world tried to contain global warming to a 2C average above historic levels, and in which global emissions began to decrease by 2040. But, even under this scenario, summer temperatures in the region would get to 46C by mid-century.

"Climate change will significantly worsen the living conditions in the Middle East and in North Africa", Professor Lelieveld says. "Prolonged heatwaves and desert dust storms can render some regions uninhabitable, which will surely contribute to the pressure to migrate."

Was Syria's war triggered by climate change?

Extremes of drought have been linked to the fall of ancient civilisations in the region, as well as to the present conflict in Syria and to the growth in the refugee population in Europe and the Middle East.

A 2015 study by scientists from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, US, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, proposes that Syria's devastating civil war which has forced millions of refugees to seek safety in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Europe and elsewhere was caused in part by climate change.

The drought that devastated parts of Syria from 2006 to 2010 was probably the result of climate change driven by human activities, according to the paper. "We're not saying the drought caused the war", says Richard Seager, one of the co-authors.

"We're saying that, added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict. And a drought of that severity was made much more likely by the ongoing human-driven drying of that region."

Agricultural production fell by a third. In the northeast, livestock was practically wiped out, cereal prices doubled, and nutrition-related diseases among children increased steeply. Adding to the problem was Syria's huge increase in population from four million in the 1950s to 22 million in recent years.

The drought also forced 1.5 million people to flee from the countryside to cities already strained by waves of refugees from the war in neighbouring Iraq, increasing tensions in urban communities.

 


 

Tim Radford writes for Climate News Network, where this article was originally published (CC BY-ND). This version contains additional reporting by The Ecologist.

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