Intense heat will drive migration

Bleak vista: An internally displaced woman carries her child in the Awdal region of Somaliland last month. (Feisal Omar/Reuters)

Bleak vista: An internally displaced woman carries her child in the Awdal region of Somaliland last month. (Feisal Omar/Reuters)

Climate refugees are already a reality. In Syria, a climate-exacerbated drought led to the migration of thousands of farmers into cities. This largely drove that country’s revolution and mass migration.

In the Pacific, the island state of Kiribati is buying land in Fiji to move people there when the seas swallow their country. In Alaska, coastal residents are moving inland as rising waves are battering their homes.

This is just the beginning. New research from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany and the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia shows that vast swaths of the Middle East and North Africa will become uninhabitable by 2050. The region is home to about 500-million people. Average daily temperatures regularly exceed 40°C. This is hotter than it was half a century ago. Since 1970, the number of hot days – 5°C hotter than average – has doubled. Persistent warming will accelerate the process.

Jos Lelieveld, Max Planck’s director, says: “In the future, climate in large parts of the Middle East and North Africa could change in such a manner that the very existence of its inhabitants is in jeopardy.”

In just 34 years, by 2050, the researchers calculate that hot days will reach 46°C. These will happen five times more regularly than they do now. Heat waves – three or more days of temperatures 5°C hotter than average – will happen 10 times more often than they do now.

Whereas global warming will affect most places by raising their winter temperatures, in the Middle East and North Africa it will be worst in summer. This will mean no respite at night. The Max Planck team says that, in summer, night-time temperatures will not drop below 30°C.

The length of hot spells will also be extended. Between 1986 and 2005, it was hotter than average for an average of 16 days in a row. The team estimates that, by mid-century, that will stretch to 80 days a year. By 2100, it will be unusually hot for 118 days a year. If carbon emissions are not lowered, this could stretch to 200 days of unusual heat a year.

Lelieveld says: “Prolonged heat waves and desert storms can render some regions uninhabitable, which will surely contribute to the pressure to migrate.”

In previous research, the team found that dust pollution in the atmosphere over Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria had increased by 70% since 2000. This was mainly the result of the increasing number – and severity – of droughts in the region.

The intensity of all these scenarios will come down to decisions made by politicians.

The Max Planck team used two climate scenarios in their work, both generated by the United Nations’s climate change body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The first, the Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 4.5, assumes that carbon emissions will start to decrease by 2040.

This is what countries signed up to achieve in agreeing to the COP21 Paris Agreement late last year. In this scenario, average temperatures across the whole region will increase by 4°C this century.

The second, RCP 8.5, envisages that countries will do nothing. This business-as-usual scenario will lead to average global temperatures increasing by 4°C this century, but double that in the Middle East and North Africa.

The Max Planck research is part of an increasing amount of data ringing alarm bells about the region. Last year, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Loyola Marymount University said Gulf temperature increases would make the region uninhabitable.

They focused on wet bulb temperatures – the combined measure of temperature and humidity. Often referred to as mugginess, it’s measured by wrapping a bulb thermometer in a moistened cloth.

The highest temperature on this scale that a fit human can survive is 35°C. That is equivalent to about 45°C on a normal thermometer on a humid day. At this point, the body is unable to get rid of heat through sweat. People start to boil and dehydrate.

The team said: “Beyond this, any exposure for more than six hours would probably be intolerable for even the fittest humans, resulting in hypothermia.”

For Gulf residents, this seems a likely future problem. Large parts are extremely hot and low-lying, which means constant humidity.

Other areas will be slightly less affected, but still uninhabitable for anyone who is not fit. Mecca, where the Hajj takes place, would have a wet bulb temperature of 33°C, according to the team.

This would make the Hajj dangerous for people with health conditions, or those not at the peak of their physical ability.

If carbon emissions are not lowered, the scientists warned that large parts of the Gulf and surrounding states would resemble the Afar desert of northern Ethiopia. The area averages 34°C all year round. Summer temperatures are often higher than 50°C.

This is the future if carbon emissions are not dramatically lowered.

 
Sipho Kings

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