The Mediterranean region is warming 20 percent faster than the world as a whole, raising concerns about the impact of climate change on the region’s ecosystems.
The Mediterranean is a cradle — of civilization, of agriculture, of history. But the region, stretching across southern and southeastern Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa, is also a crucible. Here, different cultures and religions, along with extravagant wealth and material poverty, have intertwined and often collided over the centuries. Today, despite millennia of resilience in the face of threats and tragedy, the region’s future seems uncertain as it faces a torrent of environmental change matched in few other places on the globe.
At the forefront of seismic shifts in the region is a seriously warming climate enmeshed with, and aggravated by, a throng of destabilizing historical, socioeconomic, and political trends. Across the region, a vibrant diversity of cultures, landscapes, and livelihoods make acknowledging, addressing, and adapting to these ongoing and escalating challenges a tangled task.
“Whenever you look at climate change on a regional scale, it is not easy … to frame it as a simple picture,” Piero Lionello, a climatologist and professor at the University of Salento in Italy, told Mongabay. In the Mediterranean, that picture is daunting.
In a February 2022 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announced that temperatures in the Mediterranean are rising about 20 percent faster than the global average. Regional averages are already 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit) higher than pre-industrial levels. Globally, the rise has been slower, to about 1.1-1.3°C (2-2.3°F). Even if humans were to turn off the greenhouse gas tap and scotch emissions soon, the Mediterranean will likely be 2-4°C (3.6-7.2°F) hotter than it was in the 19th century by 2100.
Part of the regional rise is readily explainable, said Wolfgang Cramer, an environmental geographer and global ecologist at Aix-Marseille University in southern France. Three heat-hogging continents — Europe, Asia, and Africa — bracket the region’s namesake sea. And continental land masses tend to warm faster than watery parts of Earth, Cramer explained. “It’s just pure physics,” he said.
In that sense, the Mediterranean isn’t unique, Lionello said. “Most of the [terrestrial] regions of the world are warming faster than the global mean,” he added. “This doesn’t make the problem easier to manage.”
In the century ahead, the region’s large and socioeconomically diverse human population of more than 540 million will need to grapple with this rapidly-warming climate. They’ll also have to find ways to cope with the other problems converging here: threatened biodiversity, high pollution, surging aridity, and increasing land degradation among them. Climatologists, social scientists, and development professionals are already wrestling with this perplexing set of issues in hopes of finding solutions, or at the least figuring out a way for the cradle of civilization to endure.
Convergence of Disruptive Change
Climate change is one of nine planetary boundaries proposed by scientists at the Stockholm Resilience Centre in 2009. These thresholds, in concert with each other, serve as suggested limits on the natural processes that sustain life on Earth. Research suggests humanity’s actions have already transgressed all of these boundaries to varying degrees, which has begun to destabilize the processes themselves.
One boundary is already setting off loud alarm bells: We’ve whipped past the safe level of climate-warming carbon allowable in our atmosphere. That means we have entered a “zone of uncertainty,” with heightened future risks for civilization, humanity, and life on Earth as we’ve known it.
Scientists agree that lowering, and eventually stopping, the flow of greenhouse gases remains critical. But increasingly, the message from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, the IPCC, and other scientific institutions is that humanity needs to prepare for intensifying climate-driven impacts almost certain to occur in the remaining decades of the 21st century.
A key question, according to hydrologist Yves Tramblay, is when will we, humans, reach a threshold to which we can no longer adapt?
“This type of change can be drastic and fast,” Tramblay, of France’s Institute of Research for Development, said in an interview. “To a large extent, we don’t know this tipping point [well] enough to say, ‘OK, it will be in 20 years or 40 years.’”
The challenge of identifying tipping points is global as well as regional, especially in places like the Arctic, where warming rates are faster than elsewhere. In that sense, the fast-changing Mediterranean isn’t unique. But the tricky part of identifying thresholds is that they’re often much easier to spot in retrospect rather than in the present.
In part, that’s because crossing over the nine planetary boundaries doesn’t happen at all in isolation, further complicating the picture as rising atmospheric CO2 levels interface with other planet boundaries in the Mediterranean region. Scientists know global biodiversity loss has already destabilized the integrity of the biosphere, with serious impacts in the Mediterranean. Likewise, dissolved CO2 has turned the waters of the Mediterranean Sea more acidic, diminishing shellfish populations, for example, and harming the fishing industry that relies on their harvest. Meanwhile, longstanding and, in some cases, unsustainable agricultural practices have altered the biogeochemical balance of soils, making them less resilient. And in parts of the region, freshwater levels have reached critical lows, as farmers, bulging cities, and a burgeoning tourism sector all draw from the same dwindling pools.
“One effect is aggravating another,” Tramblay said, in effect intensifying the impacts of the overarching change in climate.
The region will continue to face unavoidable climate change impacts in the future, but where and when those impacts will occur is less certain. Still, over time, the results of past studies and modeling of our planet’s future have come into closer alignment, Lionello said. That has narrowed the band of uncertainty and helped scientists to more accurately forecast the Mediterranean’s future.
Approaching the Desert
The data are irrefutable: An already dry Mediterranean region is becoming even more arid. In a 2016 study published in the journal Science, Cramer and a colleague found that warming of more than 2°C (3.6°F) since the beginning of the industrial revolution would be unprecedented in the past 10,000 years. That’s a milestone the IPCC considers likely in the Mediterranean region by the end of the century, if not sooner. This analysis suggests climate change at this level will turn vast areas of southern Spain into desert. Scrubby vegetation will replace deciduous forests, which in turn will move upslope, forcing out alpine, conifer-anchored ecosystems.
More broadly, less rainfall during the summer in many parts of the region will spark crop-wilting droughts and more intense wildfires happening with increased frequency. In a seeming paradox, scientists expect a 4 percent increase in rainfall for every 1°C (1.8°F) rise in temperature, with much of that rain falling within a shorter winter season. So, as the region dries out on the whole, precipitation falling in shorter, more concentrated bursts could trigger mudslides, flooding, and erosion that robs soils of the minerals vital for agricultural production.
Under extreme future scenarios in which humans fail to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions, disastrous floods, like the one that swelled European rivers — including France’s Seine in 2016 — could become twice as likely, research has shown.
Along with these seasonal floods, rising sea levels in the region threaten centuries-old settlements built close to the edge of the relatively tide-free, normally lake-like Mediterranean. And those rising waters could destroy ecologically significant coastal wetlands. The Mediterranean Sea has risen by 6 centimeters (2.4 inches) in just the past two decades, and that trend is accelerating. The IPCC notes that low-lying areas, home to around 42 million people, ring 37 percent of the sea’s coastline. Places with growing coastal populations, such as the western part of North Africa, will likely be the most susceptible to sea-level rise. Research published in 2021 in the journal Nature also linked elevated sea levels with an increase in the occurrence of storm surges over the past six decades, in a further threat to shoreside settlements.
At sea, as well as on land, heat waves will likely make life more difficult for humans, plants, and animals. Warmer waters could spur biodiversity loss, including among the fish stocks that have fed civilizations for millennia. This warming alters the home ranges of marine species and causes die-offs: In 2003, a marine heat wave spurred mass deaths among more than two dozen invertebrate species along the Spanish coast, according to a 2009 study. These ecosystems are the source of a host of unseen ecological services critical to humans, ranging from the provision of food and clean water to the protection of coastlines.
In an attempt to survive, some plants and animals will need to shift their ranges northward to cooler waters and climes. But because the Mediterranean Sea is more or less a closed system, there’s only so far north they can go, Lionello explained. “You’re stuck,” he said.
Does that mean that the Mediterranean may become “uninhabitable” for humans sometime this century? Perhaps, some scientists say, at least for parts of the region. But beyond the question of absolute survival, many activities in the region could become uninsurable from a financial standpoint, including waterfront homes, annual wine grape harvests, and tourism infrastructure.
The increased heat itself poses massive risks to human health, especially for communities that don’t have access to air conditioning. A 2021 study in the journal Climate and Atmospheric Science predicts that populations in North Africa and the Middle East could experience “super and ultra-extreme” heat waves with temperatures of 56°C (133°F) or higher lasting for weeks at a time on an annual basis by 2100.
“Once the temperature reaches 50°[C, or 122°F] in urban areas, it’s just impossible basically to manage,” said Tramblay, who was not involved in the 2021 study.
Temperatures of 37°C (99°F) may become a summer norm for parts of Spain, Turkey, and Egypt. Today, inhabitants can expect about a month of those temperatures every year. By 2050, that could rise to two months, according to the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. At permanent risk is the nurturing Mediterranean climate for which the region is so famous.
Each of these impacts appears to push the region closer to that realm of uninhabitability — especially when it comes to the production of food.
Cradle With Many Mouths to Feed
Agriculture underpins nearly all human life in the Mediterranean. Indeed, certain crops are tied inextricably with the cultures that produce them. Think wine in France, nurtured by the historically climate-moderating Mediterranean coast. Or wheat in Egypt, where aish, the Arabic word for life, often stands in for the more common khobz in other Arabic-speaking countries.
But wheat cannot grow without water, which must come from either rainfall or irrigation. Today, the Nile Delta region is still responsible for 65 percent of all of Egypt’s agriculture, and yet the incidence of drought there and elsewhere across the Mediterranean is on the rise. In part, that’s due to higher temperatures driving the speedier evaporation of water from soil and plants. “A warmer atmosphere is extracting more humidity from the soil,” Lionello said.
Sameh Abd-Elmabod, an agricultural scientist at Egypt’s National Research Centre, notes that land-use decisions have the potential to exacerbate climate-driven problems. In his native Egypt, the expansion of urban areas is eating away at the country’s agricultural heartland. The Delta lies north of Cairo, a city of more than 21 million people. In 2019, Abd-Elmabod and his colleagues reported in the Journal of Environmental Management that the urban sprawl that exploded between 1972 and 2017 swallowed up more than 1,700 square kilometers (660 square miles) of agriculturally productive and carbon-rich soils. “By losing the most fertile agricultural lands, that means we are losing the carbon stock of soil,” he said, “and then we are losing the ability of crops [to] absorb carbon dioxide.”
The trend has also forced Egyptian farmers to cultivate lower-quality soils, putting them on an unsustainable path.
A section of cultivated Nile Delta in July 1984 and in August 2021. Today, the Nile Delta region is still responsible for 65 percent of all of Egypt’s agriculture, and yet the incidence of drought there and elsewhere across the Mediterranean is on the rise. Photo Credit: NASA Earth Observatory.
Abd-Elmabod, who also works at Seville University in Spain, likens productive soils to a bank account. With proper management, rich soil will pay dividends in the form of good harvests for years. But constant withdrawals — by overtaxing the soil with crops that may not be adapted to arid environments, for example — can lead to rapidly diminishing returns.
In the parts of the Mediterranean that rely on rain-fed crops, the more concentrated and intense winter rainfalls anticipated by climate forecasts are likely to leech soils of key nutrients, Abd-Elmabod said. These deluges leave behind undernourished, bankrupt soils unable to support agriculture as they once did.
Other research suggests that soil biodiversity, which includes everything from invisible microbes to insects and earthworms, is waning in the Mediterranean and could be pushing a critical food-producing region toward utter collapse. These overlooked soil-dwelling species aerate the soil, break down nutrients, and maintain a delicate chemical balance that keeps calamitous infestations and blights at bay.
On another front, the loss of soil moisture could lead to a self-perpetuating cycle of drought. With less water evaporation as temperatures continue to bake the soil, there’s less rain to replenish that moisture, leading in turn to more drought.
One way to adapt would be the introduction of drought-adapted crop varieties. That transition has already begun in parts of France’s wine industry, Tramblay said, as winegrowers switch to hardier breeds of grapes.
“There is big money involved,” Tramblay added. “We need to adapt and to change a business model. And I think that’s the main point.”
In a 2020 study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers plotted out how climate change might affect wine growing, and what shifts should occur. In some instances, that could mean growing Mourvèdre grapes instead of Merlot or Cabernet Sauvignon. They also found that growing a diversity of grapes would improve resilience and help growers avoid climate-related losses.
Cradle Where Water Competition Becomes Dire
The disruption of the hydrological cycle has other consequences, especially for poor people relying on crops for sustenance. Solutions like irrigation may only be a temporary — and in some cases, counterproductive — fix for surging aridity. “There are many, many reasons why the water crisis is getting worse,” Cramer told Mongabay. “[Many] of the current agricultural systems are not actually resilient to climate change,” he said, as the IPCC report focused on adaptation laid out in February 2022.
Irrigation may provide stopgap relief by bringing enough water to coax a few more harvests from drier soil. But the longer-term impacts could lead to a broader drawdown of the region’s water resources, and to a buildup of salt in soils — an effect that wrecked ancient Mesopotamian civilizations.
“If you have more droughts, you will pump more water, for example, from the river for irrigation,” Tramblay said. “But by doing that, you will also lower the level of the river.”
Less water will then be available for ecosystem functioning, compounding the impacts that climate change is having through rising temperatures and desertification. “After a certain point, those strategies will not work anymore,” Tramblay added, “it will be impossible to sustain the demand.”
Research, and perhaps common sense, have long advocated for more efficient water use to give agriculture a fighting chance in a globally warmer future. Boosting the use of irrigation, on the other hand, could instead encourage poor water management.
“It’s very risky,” Lionello said of the unthrottled use of irrigation to replace the need for agricultural adaptation. The availability of plentiful water now may perversely lead to the use of more water than is needed for “crops or [farming] habits that are not sustainable over the long term.”
“You need to optimize consumption,” he added.
Using irrigation as a crutch for unsustainable practices is an example of maladaptation, which the IPCC has cautioned against because such strategies are apt to only make the situation worse. But in parts of the Mediterranean, small-scale and subsistence farmers may bear the brunt of such ill-advised tactics.
“It’s not a sustainable or a permanent strategy to just think about irrigation,” said Lisa Schipper, a research fellow at the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford in the UK. Instead, solving problems associated with climate change should involve a broader look at the conditions that lead to climate change vulnerability.
Winegrowers in France and wheat farmers in Egypt both face looming upheaval due to climate change. Their widely divergent industries need to make complex decisions: In France’s case, the choice will determine the future of a centuries-old economic engine, while decisions by Egypt’s practitioners could literally mean the difference between life and death.
Cradle of Disparity, Cradle of Conflict
The Mediterranean region graphically brings together the jarring social and economic inequality that exists across the globe. Incredible wealth lines a portion of the sea’s shores in places like southern France and Monaco, while small-scale farmers and crowded urbanites struggle for survival elsewhere.
“If you are a smallholder in the Nile Delta, you are much more at risk from all these [changes] than someone in a similar setting in the Po Delta [in Italy] or the Ebro Delta [in Spain],” Cramer said. “For the same amount of environmental change in the south, you’re more vulnerable than you are in the north mostly.”
As the February 2022 IPCC report points out, the risks of climate change will not be borne equally by the world’s population. “That’s another tipping point,” Tramblay said. “It means the cost of natural hazards is becoming more and more important.”
Concern over escalating impacts, and people’s ability to adapt to them based on economic status, has set up a contentious debate over whether climate change could spur regional conflict or the mass migration of people from less industrialized parts of the Mediterranean to more affluent areas.
The IPCC says climate change does not directly lead to conflict. But the group’s report does acknowledge that the effects of a warmer world and how we respond to it may create conditions where conflict is more common. How precisely environmental change — and climate change specifically — may trigger conflict is a question that continues to perplex scientists. In the far-eastern Mediterranean, a swirling set of interwoven circumstances, and how they played out in the late 2000s and early 2010s in what’s known as the Arab Spring, helps demonstrate the intense vulnerability of many parts of society.
In 2015, climatologist Colin Kelley, then at the University of California, Santa Barbara, published a study with his colleagues examining the role climate change-induced drought may have had in igniting the Syrian civil war in 2011. That ongoing conflict has forced 6.8 million refugees to leave Syria, with 6.7 million displaced internally.
For the research, Kelley’s team of physical and social scientists teased apart the factors that precipitated the war. Syria had experienced a drought in the 1990s, Kelley said, which hadn’t led to social unrest. But between 2007 and 2010, the wheat crop in northeastern Syria suffered a “complete failure” in the most severe three-year drought on record, Kelley said. “That was unprecedented.”
Other events had already primed Syria for conflict by that time. In response to the US-led war in Iraq, as many as 1.5 million Iraqi refugees spilled into Syria’s cities and towns by 2007, creating instability. Syria’s urban population had already been surging, so the influx of Iraqis exacerbated overcrowding, crime rates, and unemployment.
Then, in 2011, the Arab Spring brought the winds of change to a country that had begun to chafe under the despotic rule of Bashar al-Assad. Assad had taken the reins of the country in 2000 after the death of his father, Hafez, who had been in power for 30 years.
Cramer, who was not part of the study, noted that the paper made waves among experts, in part, he feels, because of a misconception: Some thought the researchers concluded that the drought actually caused the war and the subsequent mass migration of Syrians. “It was frequently read that way,” Cramer said. But, he added, “There’s actually no claim that the droughts themselves caused people to migrate.”
Richard Seager, a climate scientist at Columbia University and a study co-author, echoed that sentiment in a statement in 2015. “We’re not saying the drought caused the war,” Seager said. “We’re saying that added to all the other stressors, it helped kick things over the threshold into open conflict. And a drought of that severity was made much more likely by the ongoing human-driven drying of that region.”
“It’s really a complex phenomenon: Who is actually becoming a refugee because of environmental change?” Cramer asked. “It’s always only one factor out of several.”
The Search for Solutions
Understanding what makes communities vulnerable to environmental change is crucial to addressing future impacts of climate change, Cramer explained. Hand in hand with that understanding, there must be an emphasis on building resilience to minimize or even eliminate vulnerability, instead of waiting for the consequences, he added.
“There’s a lot of need to look at regions that are affected by climate change and see how they are generally destabilized in all sorts of ways — economically, socially, ecologically,” Cramer said. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘What can we do to increase the resilience in those countries?’ rather than saying, ‘OK, we need to prepare for refugee flow.’”
Cramer has been at the forefront of an IPCC-like effort called Mediterranean Experts on Climate and Environmental Change (MedECC). “The goal was for a network of scientists from all around the basin to prepare a big report on risks associated with environmental change … for the whole basin,” Cramer said.
The resulting 2020 MedECC report grew out of a review of the threats faced by the Mediterranean, written by Cramer and colleagues and published in Nature Climate Change in 2018. He said he hopes that identifying these problems is a first step to finding solutions around the region.
The 2018 paper that Cramer led identifies challenges, but also opportunities, he noted. Urban development is one example. “Building a climate-resilient city is not necessarily more expensive than building a conventional city,” Cramer explained. “If we now take the idea of climate-resilient development, and build that into the transformation of cities, then around the Mediterranean, there’s tons of opportunities on both shores.”
Farming, too, presents opportunities, Piero Lionello said, if we act quickly. A rapid switch to crops adapted to arid climates could make a big difference, as could choosing types of agriculture that are more harmonious with natural ecosystems.
“The agroecological transition [has] huge potential [to succeed] at the international scale,” Cramer said. That’s another spot where he said he hopes MedECC can play a role — as an interlocutor between scientists, policymakers, and society. He said the group’s fundamental belief is that information could be sufficient to tip the scales toward action.
“If people were fully aware of the risks associated with environmental change,” Cramer said, “then surely, they will do something more to protect people.”
Still, he’s careful not to gloss over the very real consequences the Mediterranean region, and the world, will undoubtedly face as climate change and other human-driven environmental changes escalate. There’s no time to waste in dealing with these challenges, he added.
“We’re not adapting well enough to the inevitable changes that come with climate change, and we are also doing way too little with all the other forces such as pollution, or the degradation of land and sea,” Cramer said. But, he added, “We must remain hopeful.”