The Mediterranean in agony

The frightening report of the experts convened by the Union for the Mediterranean


Preliminary results of a large study with contributions from 80 heart-breaking scientists. The Mediterranean, cradle of our cultures, landscape of the founding myths of our civilizations, crossroads of three continents, home to 500 million human beings, the Mediterranean of Giono, Pagnol, like that of Averroes or Maimonides, the Mediterranean of the Romans, Arabs, Hebrews, Greeks, the Mediterranean sung by Trenet and Brassens, painted by Matisse, this Mediterranean is in agony. It is the region of the world most affected, after the Arctic, by climate change. And the consequences, accumulated like dominoes, are terrible. The members of the Union for the Mediterranean, heads of state, ministers, diplomats and researchers are all together, with all the strength they can, sounding a thunderous alarm. Alert on the Mediterranean.

It has been suspected for years that the Mediterranean has been suffering from climate change. Scientists observe that the sea is changing and the species that make up the wealth of biodiversity in this unique universe are disappearing, changing or being replaced. Farmers have long been worried about repeated droughts, the transformation of the flora and the appearance of new predators. But until now, although many risk assessments have been undertaken at local or regional level, there has been no coherent synthesis of the state of the Mediterranean. This is why the Union for the Mediterranean, an intergovernmental organisation created in 2008, which brings together 43 countries, including the 28 Member States of the European Union, has launched a major and landmark initiative: entrusting the Medecc network of more than 80 scientists from all over the Euro-Mediterranean region with the task of establishing the first scientific assessment report on the impacts of climate and environmental change in the Mediterranean basin.

The preliminary results of this work were presented in Barcelona on 10 October. The UfM did not want to wait for the final report to be drawn up before communicating its results. It must be said that the findings are edifying and urgent.

A climate that changes 20 % faster than anywhere else on the globe

In the Mediterranean region, average annual temperatures are today about 1.5°C above the pre-Industrial Revolution (1880-1899) averages and above global warming trends (+1.1°C).

Mediterranean. Thermal anomalies
Average thermal anomalies. The warming of the atmosphere (evolution of mean annual temperatures compared to the averages of the period 1880-1899) in the Mediterranean region (blue lines, with and without smoothing) and at the global level (green line). In the Mediterranean region, the mean annual temperature is today about 1.5°C above that of the period 1880-1899 and higher than the global warming trend.

In the Mediterranean, global warming is in a trend of 0.03°C per year, which is higher than global trends. The scenarios show that, without significant mitigation measures compared to what is being done now, the temperature will rise by 2.2°C (compared to the pre-industrial period) in the Mediterranean region by 2040, or even by 3.8°C in some regions by 2100.

Summer periods will potentially be more impacted by this increase than winter periods. Episodes of high temperatures and heat waves (periods of excessive heat) will likely be more frequent and/or more intense. The authors of the report state that "the coolest summer month of the year will be warmer than the current warmest month. Clearly, heat waves will be the norm and long periods of extreme heat will tend to become more common. The phenomenon will be all the more noticeable in urban areas where the "urban heat island" phenomenon will exacerbate the frequency, intensity and duration of heat waves.

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Extreme droughts

Extreme droughts will become more frequent throughout the Mediterranean basin, with significant impacts on many systems.
Indeed, climate models clearly indicate a trend towards a reduction in precipitation in the coming decades. Decreasing precipitation associated with increased warming is contributing to strong trends towards a drying out of the climate. The frequency and intensity of droughts have already significantly increased in the Mediterranean since 1950. Between 2008 and 2011, for instance, the Middle East experienced a strong period of drought due to the prolonged absence of rainfall, a situation exacerbated by the significant evapotranspiration linked to warming (the average temperature increased by 1°C between 1931 and 2008) and by the increase in water demand due to strong demographic growth.

The scientists who authored the report say that a 2°C increase in global atmospheric temperature is expected to result in a decrease of about 10 to 15 % in summer precipitation in southern France, northwestern Spain and the Balkans, and a decrease of 30 % in Turkey. A temperature increase of 2 to 4°C in southern Europe in 2080 would lead to a significant and widespread decrease in precipitation of up to 30 %.

For every degree of global temperature increase, experts associate a decrease of 4 % in precipitation in most of the region, especially in the south. If the global temperature were to rise to 1.5°C, a figure that is being approached daily, drought episodes would increase by 7 % and, at the same time, but not in the same place, heavy rainfall episodes would increase by 20 %.

The sea warms up

Warming of the surface of the Mediterranean Sea is currently estimated at 0.4°C per decade over the period 1985-2006 (+0.3°C per decade for the western region and +0.5°C per decade for the eastern region). The rise in temperature is not constant over the year and mainly takes place between May and July. The largest increase of 0.16°C per year was identified in June in the Tyrrhenian, Ligurian and Adriatic Seas and in the waters off the African coast. The Aegean Sea shows the largest change in sea surface temperature during August.

Projections for 2100 range between +1.8°C and +3.5°C on average compared to temperatures between 1961 and 1990. The Balearic Islands, the north-western Ionian Sea region, the Aegean Sea and the Levantine Basin are considered to be the regions most affected by the increase in sea surface temperature.

Mediterranean - warm sea
Expected minimum and maximum changes in sea surface temperature over the period 2070-2099 (compared to the period 1961-1990). The largest (MAX) and smallest (MIN) deviations for six scenarios are shown (°C)

The sea rises

Sea-level rise would affect one third of the population in the coastal areas of the region and jeopardize the livelihoods of at least 37 million people in North Africa.

The average global sea level rise in the coming years remains uncertain today. Depending on the method used, the scenarios predict a global average sea level rise of between 52 and 190 cm by 2100. These uncertainties will have a significant impact on the rise of the Mediterranean sea level due to its connection to the global ocean system via the Strait of Gibraltar.

Accelerated melting of the ice sheet in Greenland and Antarctica represents a significant risk of sea level rise, with a potential rise of several metres, even if global warming on a global scale is limited to a 1.5°C increase.

By 2050, Mediterranean cities will account for half of the 20 cities in the world that suffer the greatest annual damage due to sea-level rise. These costs will strain the already limited resources of many urban areas in the region.

Agricultural productivity in coastal areas is thus seriously threatened by the inundation of soil and groundwater by seawater intrusion.

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250 million "water poor".

Freshwater availability is likely to decline by 15 % over the next few decades, one of the largest declines in the world; this will create severe constraints for agriculture and human use in a region already affected by water scarcity.

Water availability in the Mediterranean basin will be reduced due to three factors: reduced rainfall, rising temperatures, and population growth, especially in countries where water supply is already insufficient.

The Mediterranean population considered as "water poor" (i.e. with less than 1000 m3 per capita per year) is expected to increase from 180 million in 2013 to more than 250 million over the next 20 years. The populations of the semi-arid regions to the South and East of the Mediterranean are more exposed to water scarcity and the high interannual variability of their water resources. People living in the catchment basins of the Middle and Near East will be exposed to new chronic water shortages, even if global warming is limited to a rise of less than 2°C. In Greece and Turkey, water availability could fall below 1000 m3 per capita per year by 2030. The current lack of water availability per capita in south-eastern Spain and the southern Mediterranean coasts could fall below 500 m3 per capita per year in the near future.

Mediterranean - water resources
Annual renewable natural water resources per capita in the main Mediterranean river basins, expressed as a level of scarcity for human consumption

More frequent droughts and intensified global warming will expose Mediterranean people, especially those living in the river basins of the Middle East and Near East, to severe water shortages. This situation, the authors of the report say, " is likely to have many impacts on livelihoods, including increased sources of conflict between peoples and increased mass migration ".

Polytraumatized ecosystems

The Mediterranean basin is a biodiversity hotspot in the world, but many ecosystems are threatened by climate change, soil management, pollution and overexploitation. Seawater acidification and rising sea temperatures have already led to the loss of 41% from major predators including marine mammals. 34 % of fish species are lost due to overfishing.

On land, changes in biodiversity in the Mediterranean include forest degradation and loss of wetlands, but also the loss of open habitats due to the abandonment of agropastoralism. Agricultural landscapes are losing many species of plants, birds and other animals due to the intensification of global warming. Future disturbances and unsustainable land use will exacerbate these trends. Flooding and saltwater intrusion will affect many delicately balanced coastal wetlands.

Mediterranean - desertification
Vulnerability of the Mediterranean region to desertification

The tiger mosquito invasion (Aedes albopictus) has been exacerbated by climate and environmental change. More than 700 species of non-native marine plants and animals indicate warmer conditions (often from the Red Sea). Some exotic predators, such as lionfish, may give them advantages over native species, leading to regional extinction or habitat loss. In recent decades, rising water temperatures have contributed to the scale and intensity of jellyfish epidemics, which have become a parasitic species because they disrupt other highly balanced ecosystems.

Mega-fires, caused by hot and dry conditions but also by landscape changes, have destroyed record forest areas in recent years, damaging biodiversity and their capacity to absorb CO2. The future burned area could increase by 40%, with a warming scenario of 1.5°C.

Couscous, bread, pasta: 1°C more = 7.5 % less wheat production

Climate, environmental and socio-economic changes pose a threat to food security in the Mediterranean region. The pressures are not homogeneous in the region and for the different production sectors. The factors affecting the agriculture and livestock sectors in the Mediterranean basin are water scarcity, soil degradation and erosion. Extreme climatic events, such as droughts, heat waves and heavy rainfall, cause unexpected production losses and contribute to crop yield variability.

At the level of deltas of key importance for agricultural production (e.g. the Nile Delta), the available agricultural area is reduced due to sea level rise and land subsidence. Food security is also threatened by pests and mycotoxins (toxic substances produced by fungi, especially moulds) that grow on plants in the wild or in storage areas.

Yields of many winter and summer crops are expected to decline due to the effects of climate change, particularly in southern regions. By 2050, vegetable production in Egypt is expected to decrease by 40 %, sunflower production by 12 % and tuber production in Southern Europe by 14 %. Global warming is also expected to affect olive production as well as grapevine production.

Early flowering and insufficient cold weather ("chilling") are also expected to result in lower fruit tree yields. For vegetables such as tomatoes, reduced water availability will be the main factor limiting their yield.

For some crops, an increase in yield could come from the fertilizing effect of CO2, causing increased water use efficiency and improved biomass productivity. However, for several types of cereals, these increased yields are expected to be associated with quality degradation (e.g. low protein content).

Fisheries and aquaculture contribute significantly to food security and the economy of the Mediterranean region. For millennia, fishing has been an important activity in the Mediterranean and this has resulted in overexploitation of the main commercial species, with 90 % of stocks in a state of overfishing. The most pessimistic scenarios project that more than 20 % of the fish and invertebrates currently exploited in the eastern Mediterranean will disappear from the region between 2040 and 2059.

Between 2070 and 2099, 45 species are expected to be added to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species and another 14 are expected to become extinct. The maximum removal potential from the southern coasts of the Mediterranean Sea is projected to decrease by more than 20 % by 2050 compared to the 1990s.

Health insecurity

Human health is also at risk: heat-related illnesses and deaths are expected to become more frequent, especially in cities due to the urban heat island effect and for vulnerable population groups such as the elderly, the young and the poorest.

Even if a large part of the Mediterranean population is used to high temperatures, an increase in the intensity and frequency of heat waves, or a change in seasonality, exposes vulnerable populations to significant health risks, especially poor people living in precarious conditions and with limited access to air-conditioned spaces. The extent to which heat-related morbidity and mortality rates will increase over the coming decades therefore depends on the adaptive capacity of Mediterranean populations, the capacity of the urban environment to reduce the urban heat island effect, the implementation of public awareness programmes and the level of preparedness of the health system.

Climate change favours the emergence of water-borne and vector-borne diseases. The life cycle dynamics of disease vector species, pathogenic organisms and reservoir species are all sensitive to climatic conditions. The authors of the report formally state: " We can say with certainty that global warming and the increased frequency of extreme weather events, such as floods, will contribute to the potential for vector or waterborne disease transmission in the region.

Degradation of air, soil and water quality has consequences for human health through respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, as well as reduced access to healthy food. The concentration of gases and particles in the air is increasing due to desertification and forest fires caused by climate change, but also as a result of direct human activities, especially in large cities. In a feedback loop, deteriorating air quality also impacts climate change since many air pollutants are also greenhouse gases.

Finally, in the Mediterranean, human health is largely conditioned by societal trends and political situations. In some countries or regions, poor sanitary conditions lead to risks of consumption of contaminated food or drinking water (for example in the Middle East and North Africa countries where conflicts are rife). Urbanization and increasing population density in coastal areas contribute to air pollution and increase the risk of transmission of infectious diseases. Social instability and political conflicts lead to migration flows that favour the transmission of diseases.

Human Security

Climate and environmental change and social, economic and political instability threaten human security in a variety of ways. In the Mediterranean region, nearly 40 % of the coastline is built. One third of the population (about 150 million people) lives close to the sea and infrastructure is generally in close proximity to mean sea level due to limited storm surges and low tidal ranges. Consequently, sea level rise, storm surges, floods, erosion and local subsidence will directly affect ports, port cities, coastal infrastructure, wetlands and beaches in the Mediterranean region.

About 15 metropolises (port cities with a population of more than 1 million inhabitants in 2005) are threatened by the risk of floods due to the rise in sea level. Mediterranean cities will constitute half of the 20 cities in the world with the highest increase in average annual damage. For socio-economic reasons, the adaptive capacity of the southern and eastern regions of the Mediterranean is generally lower than that of the northern regions, making them particularly vulnerable to these coastal impacts. The regions exposed to the most extreme risks are mainly located in the southern and eastern Mediterranean (Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Palestine and Syria). In North African countries, a 1-metre rise in sea level could affect about 37 million people.

With regard to social instability, conflicts and migratory flows, human security around the Mediterranean depends greatly on socio-political conditions but also on environmental changes. Generally speaking, climate change causes a decrease in available natural and economic resources and thus contributes to the hardening of conflicts.

The revolts in Syria that began in March 2011 are the result of several complex and interrelated factors. Although the armed conflicts are mainly related to the change of political regime, it is possible that the revolt was triggered by socio-economic, religious and political factors leading to the collapse of the Syrian rural economy and thus widening the gaps between urban and rural development, unemployment and the increase in the population living in poverty. The assumption that climate played a significant role was strongly contested. Although the causal link cannot be directly established, some believe that recent droughts have played a significant role in its onset, as these are among the longest and most severe droughts in the past 900 years. In addition to the situation in Syria, environmental and socio-political changes are now known to be a source of forced human migration to more stable regions around the world.


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