Ignoring the signs of climate change will lead to unprecedented, societally disruptive heat extremes in the Middle East and North Africa. Max Planck Institute predicts that Extreme temperatures, heat stress and forced migration would be the result in the near future.
March 23, 2021
The Middle East and North Africa Region (MENA) is a climate change hot spot where summers warm much faster than in the rest of the world. Some parts of the region are already among the hottest locations globally. A new international study led by scientists from the Climate and Atmosphere Research Center of the Cyprus Institute and the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry predicts that ignoring the signals of climate change and continuing business-as-usual with increasing greenhouse gas emissions will lead to extreme and life-threatening heatwaves in the region. Such extraordinary heat events will have a severe impact on the people of the area.
The study, building on cooperation between climate scientists from the MENA region, aimed at assessing emerging heatwave characteristics. The research team used a first-of-its-kind multi-model ensemble of climate projections designed exclusively for the geographic area. Such detailed downscaling studies had been lacking for this region. The researchers then projected future hot spells and characterised them with the Heat Wave Magnitude Index. The good match among the model results and with observations indicates a high level of confidence in the heat wave projections.
“Our results for a business-as-usual pathway indicate that especially in the second half of this century unprecedented super- and ultra-extreme heatwaves will emerge”, explains George Zittis of The Cyprus Institute, first author of the study. These events will involve excessively high temperatures of up to 56 degrees Celsius and higher in urban settings and could last for multiple weeks, being potentially life-threatening for humans and animals. In the second half of the century, about half of the MENA population or approximately 600 million people could be exposed to such annually recurring extreme weather conditions.
“Vulnerable citizens may not have the means to adapt to such harsh environmental conditions”, adds Jos Lelieveld, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and leading the research team. “These heat waves combined with regional economic, political, social and demographic drivers have a high potential to cause massive, forced migration to cooler regions in the north.”
To avoid such extreme heat events in the region, the scientists recommend immediate and effective climate change mitigation measures. “Such measures include drastic decreases of the emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, but also adaptation solutions for the cities in the area”, says Lelieveld. It is expected that in the next 50 years, almost 90 percent of the exposed population in the MENA will live in urban centers, which will need to cope with these societally disruptive weather conditions. “There is an urgent need to make the cities more resilient to climate change”, emphasizes Zittis.
Despite the high oil revenues reaped from hydrocarbon resources and their spillover effects on all oil and non-oil producing countries, most MENA region economies suffer from structural problems and fragile political systems, preventing them from adopting effective politico-economic transformations.
The capital was available, but investments were typically misdirected to form in all cases ‘rentier’ economies, with Arab countries economies remaining very undiversiﬁed. They primarily rely on oil and low value-added commodity products such as cement, alumina, fertilisers, and phosphates.
Demographic transitions present a significant challenge: the population increased from 100 million in 1960 to about 400 million in 2011. Sixty per cent are under 25 years old.
Urbanisation had increased from 38 per cent in 1970 to 65 per cent in 2010.
Rural development being not a priority; the increasing rural migration into the cities searching for jobs will put even more strain on all existing undeveloped infrastructures.
Current economic development patterns will increasingly strain the ability of Arab governments to provide decent-paying jobs. For instance, youth unemployment in the region is currently double the world average.
The demand for food, water, housing, education, transportation, electricity, and other municipal services will rise with higher learning institutions proliferating; the quality of education below average does not lead to employment.
Power demand in Saudi Arabia, for example, is rising at a fast rate of over 7 per cent per year.
Amman, Cairo, and other Arab cities gradually lose their agriculture space because of the suburbs’ expansion. Gated communities and high-rise ofﬁce buildings are sprawling while ignoring low-income housing.
In the meantime, the real world feels the planet is in danger of an environmental collapse; economists increasingly advise putting the planet on its balance sheets. For over a Century of Burning Fossil Fuels, to propel our cars, power our businesses, and keep the lights on in our homes, we never envisioned that we will paying this price.
In effect, a recent economic report on biodiversity indicates that economic practice will have to change because the world is finite.
For decades many have been aware of this reality. However, it is a giant leap forward for current economic thinking to acknowledge that Climate change is a symptom of a larger issue. The threat to life support systems from the plunder and demise of the natural environment is a reality.
Society, some governments, and industry are recognising that climate change can be controlled by replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy, electric cars and reducing emissions from every means of production.
Talking about replacing fossil fuels would mean a potential reduction of the abovementioned revenues.
However, would the spreading of solar farms all over the Sahara desert constitute compensation for the losses?
The world’s most forbidding deserts could be the best places on Earth for harvesting solar power – the most abundant and clean source of energy we have. Deserts are spacious, relatively flat, rich in silicon – the raw material for the semiconductors from which solar cells are made — and never short of sunlight. In fact, the ten largest solar plants around the world are all located in deserts or dry regions.
Researchers imagine it might be possible to transform the world’s largest desert, the Sahara, into a giant solar farm, capable of meeting four times the world’s current energy demand. Blueprints have been drawn up for projects in Tunisia and Morocco that would supply electricity for millions of households in Europe.
While the black surfaces of solar panels absorb most of the sunlight that reaches them, only a fraction (around 15%) of that incoming energy gets converted to electricity. The rest is returned to the environment as heat. The panels are usually much darker than the ground they cover, so a vast expanse of solar cells will absorb a lot of additional energy and emit it as heat, affecting the climate.
If these effects were only local, they might not matter in a sparsely populated and barren desert. But the scale of the installations that would be needed to make a dent in the world’s fossil energy demand would be vast, covering thousands of square kilometres. Heat re-emitted from an area this size will be redistributed by the flow of air in the atmosphere, having regional and even global effects on the climate.
A greener Sahara
A 2018 study used a climate model to simulate the effects of lower albedo on the land surface of deserts caused by installing massive solar farms. Albedo is a measure of how well surfaces reflect sunlight. Sand, for example, is much more reflective than a solar panel and so has a higher albedo.
The model revealed that when the size of the solar farm reaches 20% of the total area of the Sahara, it triggers a feedback loop. Heat emitted by the darker solar panels (compared to the highly reflective desert soil) creates a steep temperature difference between the land and the surrounding oceans that ultimately lowers surface air pressure and causes moist air to rise and condense into raindrops. With more monsoon rainfall, plants grow and the desert reflects less of the sun’s energy, since vegetation absorbs light better than sand and soil. With more plants present, more water is evaporated, creating a more humid environment that causes vegetation to spread.
This scenario might seem fanciful, but studies suggest that a similar feedback loop kept much of the Sahara green during the African Humid Period, which only ended 5,000 years ago.
So, a giant solar farm could generate ample energy to meet global demand and simultaneously turn one of the most hostile environments on Earth into a habitable oasis. Sounds perfect, right?
Not quite. In a recent study, we used an advanced Earth system model to closely examine how Saharan solar farms interact with the climate. Our model takes into account the complex feedbacks between the interacting spheres of the world’s climate – the atmosphere, the ocean and the land and its ecosystems. It showed there could be unintended effects in remote parts of the land and ocean that offset any regional benefits over the Sahara itself.
Drought in the Amazon, cyclones in Vietnam
Covering 20% of the Sahara with solar farms raises local temperatures in the desert by 1.5°C according to our model. At 50% coverage, the temperature increase is 2.5°C. This warming is eventually spread around the globe by atmosphere and ocean movement, raising the world’s average temperature by 0.16°C for 20% coverage, and 0.39°C for 50% coverage. The global temperature shift is not uniform though – the polar regions would warm more than the tropics, increasing sea ice loss in the Arctic. This could further accelerate warming, as melting sea ice exposes dark water which absorbs much more solar energy.
This massive new heat source in the Sahara reorganises global air and ocean circulation, affecting precipitation patterns around the world. The narrow band of heavy rainfall in the tropics, which accounts for more than 30% of global precipitation and supports the rainforests of the Amazon and Congo Basin, shifts northward in our simulations. For the Amazon region, this causes droughts as less moisture arrives from the ocean. Roughly the same amount of additional rainfall that falls over the Sahara due to the surface-darkening effects of solar panels is lost from the Amazon. The model also predicts more frequent tropical cyclones hitting North American and East Asian coasts.
Some important processes are still missing from our model, such as dust blown from large deserts. Saharan dust, carried on the wind, is a vital source of nutrients for the Amazon and the Atlantic Ocean. So a greener Sahara could have an even bigger global effect than our simulations suggested.
We are only beginning to understand the potential consequences of establishing massive solar farms in the world’s deserts. Solutions like this may help society transition from fossil energy, but Earth system studies like ours underscore the importance of considering the numerous coupled responses of the atmosphere, oceans and land surface when examining their benefits and risks.
A major intrusion of sand and dust from the Sahara transformed skies and the landscape over Europe on the weekend of 6-7 February, with far-reaching impacts for the environment and health. It once again highlighted the importance of accurate forecasts and warnings of this transboundary hazard.
The event was accurately predicted by the Barcelona Dust Forecast Centre, which acts as WMO’s Sand and Dust Storm Warning Advisory and Assessment System’s (SDS-WAS) regional centre for Northern Africa, Middle East and Europe (NAMEE). The system seeks to provide operational forecasting and warning advisory services for various regions of the world in a globally coordinated manner in order to reduce the impacts on the environment, health and economies.
“We knew about the event in advance. The models were really good in predicting the event,” said Sara Basart, at the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre, which serves as the operational hub.
The sand and dust storm started on 5 February in northern Algeria, reducing visibility to 800 meters. The dust particles were transported through the atmosphere to southeast Spain and on to southern and central Europe, turning the sky yellow, coating buildings and cars with sand and dust and covering snow on the Pyrenees and Alps mountain ranges with sand.
On 8 February, the dust intrusion reached the eastern Mediterranean. There was also high dust surface concentration over Africa’s Sahel region, which is one of world’s worst affected regions.
“It is not just a case of having dirty windows or cars. Sand and dust storms cause much wider problems than that,” said Slobodan Nikovic, a member of the Global SDS-WAS Steering Committee and the chair of the regional steering group of the SDS-WAS NAMEE Node.
Over the last decade, scientists have come to realize the impacts on climate, human health, the environment and many socio-econimic sectors.
WMO Members are at the vanguard in evaluating these impacts and developing products to guide preparedness, adaptation and mitigation policies. The WMO Sand and Dust Storm Project was initiated in 2004 and its Sand and Dust Storm Warning Advisory and Assessment System (SDS-WAS) was launched in 2007. WMO is also part of a UN coalition to combat sand and dust storms.
More than 20 organizations currently provide daily global or regional dust forecasts in different geographic regions, including 7 global models and more than 15 regional models contributing to SDS-WAS. It integrates research and user communities (e.g., from the health, energy, transport, aeronautical, and agricultural sectors).
“Reaching the last mile is extremely important. We need to pay more attention to the communication of this product,” says Alexander Baklanov, of WMO’s Atmospheric Environment Research division, Science and Innovation department.
WMO is therefore overseeing and monitoring the progress of the implementation of early warnings of sand and dust storms as part of WMO’s multi-hazard early warning system.
The other major challenge is to ensure that the warnings are available in countries most impacted, including in West Africa.
WMO is collaborating with the Spanish national meteorological agency AEMET and the Barcelona Sand and Dust Warning Advisory Center to improve warnings in Burkino Faso, one of the countries hardest hit. With funding from the Climate Risk and Early Warning Systems Initiative (CREWS), Burkina Faso has implemented a web page for Sand and Dust Warnings for the country, and will be extended for several other West African countries. AEMET is deploying a network of aerosol Particulate Matter (PM) instruments, which are important for health applications, given the correlation between sand and dust storms and respiratory problems, as well meningitis in the extended meningitis belt which spans 26 countries from Senegal to Ethiopia.
Paradox lost: wetlands can form in deserts, but we need to find and protect them
Once dismissed as dank and bug-infested backwaters – good only for draining and destroying to make farmland – the world’s wetlands may finally be having their moment in the sun. In the UK, the government is expected to nominate a vast expanse of blanket bogs in the far north of Scotland as a world heritage site. They might not sound attractive to some people, but these bogs are among the world’s biggest stores of carbon, they provide abundant freshwater and they harbour a miraculous array of wildlife.
This recognition that wetlands are worth protecting has its roots in an agreement signed 50 years ago, on February 2 1971 in Ramsar, Iran. The Ramsar Convention is the only international convention that’s dedicated to protecting a specific ecosystem, though in reality, the “wetlands” that the convention refers to can mean anything from swamps and peat bogs to shallow lakes and estuaries.
So far, 171 countries have signed up to the convention and more than 2,400 sites are protected under it, representing between 10% and 20% of the world’s remaining wetlands and collectively covering an area larger than Mexico. Under the convention, governments are committed to the “wise use” and upkeep of wetlands in their borders, but this doesn’t necessarily keep them safe. Nearly 90% of the world’s wetlands have been lost since 1700, and those which remain are being lost at a rate that’s three times faster than forests.
From agricultural expansion and river diversion to invasive species and climate change, wetlands face numerous threats. But one of the gravest may be ignorance. We still don’t know enough about these habitats, and they can still surprise even seasoned scientists like us. Perhaps most surprising of all are those wetlands that seem to confound all logic by thriving amid some of the driest places on Earth.
Boom and bust amid the dust
Drylands are regions of the world where more water evaporates than falls from the sky. Warm drylands cover about 40% of the Earth’s surface, but about 28% of this area overlaps with inland rivers and wetlands. The result is marshes, swamps, floodplains, and oases in a landscape where water is otherwise scarce.
Wetlands are especially important in dry landscapes, as they can be the only supply of freshwater and food for people and wildlife for miles around. Some wetlands in drylands are famous. Iraq’s Mesopotamian Marshes (largely believed to be the inspiration for the Garden of Eden) and the Nile River floodplain are both largely surrounded by desert, but it’s here in these Middle Eastern wetlands where modern human civilisation emerged.
For every famous example, there are thousands that remain unidentified and unmapped. That’s partly because these unique habitats change frequently, sometimes vanishing completely before eventually reappearing. Seasonal downpours can sustain these green patches for a while if the soil doesn’t drain well and is particularly good at holding onto the water. Other wetlands in drylands are more permanent thanks to a source of water below ground, with enough seeping to the surface to maintain damp conditions. But some wetlands can lie dormant until they’re reawakened by river flooding and suddenly erupt in vibrant shades of green.
Many wetlands in drylands are small and temporary, only hosting a thriving ecosystem for a few months following good rains that may occur years or even decades apart. Depending on the scale and their timing, scientific surveys may miss these hidden treasures. The boom-and-bust wetlands that are adapted to emerge following occasional pulses of water are so understudied that we’re in danger of losing them before we even realise their presence and understand their full value.
All wetlands are prone to change over time. Sometimes rivers change their course and switch where floodwaters, sediment and nutrients end up. Older wetlands dry up, while newer ones develop. These changes create a mosaic of different landforms with different grades of wetness and soil types, helping to create a wide range of habitats that support an equally vast range of wildlife. Understanding the processes that give rise to these wetlands can help us maintain them, but the first step must be debunking the idea that such habitats are static, unchanging features of the landscape.
Despite some limitations, the Ramsar Convention remains one of the best mechanisms for protecting and highlighting the value of wetlands, even if many still go under the radar. Though there are signs of change. India recently added a complex of shallow lakes high up in a dry mountain to the Ramsar list. Numerous threatened species may benefit from this habitat, including the vulnerable snow leopard. Hopefully, other countries will follow suit and recognise more of these rare and beautiful places before it’s too late.
Originally posted on FIRE'd @ 47: After conking out for 11 hours last night, we woke up refreshed and ready to go. Breakfast at the hotel Casablanca is a modernized city, and wasn’t exactly what we were looking for on this trip, so we were pretty happy to leave and move onto the next city, Marrakech,…
Privacy & Cookies Policy
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.