Will Extreme Heat Trigger a Refugee Crisis?

May 6, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

Desert dust storm in Kuwait
Photo credit: © Molly John, Flickr, Creative Commons.

By the end of the century, climate change could make the Middle East and North Africa uninhabitable.

The prediction is based on a study recently published in the journal Climatic Change by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and the Cyprus Institute in Nicosia.

At last year’s UN Climate Change Conference in Paris, a goal was set to keep a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). However, the new research estimates that even if this goal is met, the Middle East and North Africa could become uninhabitable by the end of the century.

Deserts are bad at buffering heat, which is why the temperature during summer in these desert regions is expected to increase more than two times faster than the average global warming. This means that by the end of the century, the hottest days south of the Mediterranean could reach a stifling 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit), up from a recent maximum temperature estimate of 43 degrees Celsius (109 degrees Fahrenheit).

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The duration of heat waves is also predicted to dramatically increase. "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, according to the model projections," said co-author Panos Hadjinicolaou from the Cyprus Institute, in a press release.

To make these estimates, the researchers first compared climate data taken between 1986 and 2005 with predictions from 26 climate models. The data and model predictions corresponded extremely well, which allowed the researchers to use these models to project climate conditions for the period from 2046 to 2065 and the period from 2081 to 2100.

The researchers concluded that climate change and increasing hot weather extremes “may exacerbate humanitarian hardship and contribute to migration.”

Environmental migrants, or ‘climate refugees’, are people forced to relocate due to alterations in the natural environment related to climate change. An estimate by environmentalist Norman Myers of Oxford University that there will be 200 million climate refugees by the year 2050 has been widely cited. However, Myers’ figures have also been hotly debated.

Regardless of whether a mass exodus from rapidly warming regions is in store, the authors of the study agree that climate change could result in a significant deterioration of living conditions for people living in North Africa and the Middle East by the end of the century.

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