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Modelling climate change for MENA

Published online 19 November 2021

Climate models paint an alarming picture of a warming Middle East and North Africa, with mitigation strategies urgently required.

Andrew Scott

Georgiy Stenchikov, 2nd from left, with some members of his group
Georgiy Stenchikov, 2nd from left, with some members of his group
Georgiy Stenchikov, Atmospheric and Climate Modeling Research Group, KAUST
Professor Georgiy Stenchikov leads the Atmospheric and Climate Modeling Research group at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. Here, he discusses the prospects for countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

In this warming world, what is the outlook for the Middle East and North Africa?

The region is more sensitive to the factors driving climate change than most other areas of the world. Actually, the pace of warming is at least 30% greater in the region than the global average. Some areas are already at the brink of not being liveable. Environmental problems like temperature changes, dust pollution and water scarcity are becoming more extreme and we cannot prevent some significant changes, so we have to learn to adjust. In some ways, the region can act as an early signal of likely worldwide changes and a test-bed for adjustments.

Why is the region more sensitive to the changing conditions than elsewhere?

Because it is so dry, in addition to its extreme heat and the effects of the heat on air circulation. Water takes up a lot of energy as it evaporates, but in a region so water scarce, this compensatory effect is much less significant than elsewhere in the world. We see this effect of water very clearly near the coastal areas of the Arabian Peninsula, for example, where the effects of global warming are less. These areas also benefit from cooling breezes. We can probably expect more movement of the population towards coastal areas as one of the adjustments that might occur.

Are there other unique aspects or complexities in the region?

The dust that is driven upwards from the desert regions is a major complicating factor. Dust has a net cooling effect at the surface, mostly because it absorbs and reflects solar radiation. We devote a lot of our modelling efforts to simulating the ways in which atmospheric dust is distributed by the local circulation patterns, and how these patterns might be affected by global warming and therefore influence the effects of climate change. Of course there is also natural variability in climate to consider, but the effects from human activities do now seem to be stronger than natural variability.

Which areas will be most affected?

Unsurprisingly, the central parts of the Arabian Peninsula and central North Africa, especially central Algeria and Libya, which are farthest from the coast, will warm fastest. Alarmingly, the models suggest that a business as usual approach without mitigation will lead to around 7°C of atmospheric warming across MENA by the end of this century.

What adjustments can be made, other than people moving to the coast?

The Saudi Vision 2030 and the Saudi and Middle East green initiatives include planting billions of trees. But trees need water. We need to improve the energy efficiency of water desalination, but also explore more advanced regional geo-engineering possibilities. For example, positioning large-scale solar panel facilities in coastal areas reduces reflection of incoming solar radiation, and increases surface temperature, which strengthens regional breezes to allow more of the water that evaporates from the Red Sea to fall as rain.

Are you optimistic or pessimistic for the future?

We have to be optimistic. We have scope for making adjustments, but the modelling we do now will be vital for helping us know what could be coming to try to mitigate it. We have to gain better understanding of the influence of all the factors involved to show us how to use our natural resources wisely. The role of observational and simulation science will be vital. We are facing potentially extreme challenges, but I am optimistic that science and technology can help us adjust and cope.