With wildfires tearing across the country in recent days, climate experts are warning that Israel is seeing an increase in trends of extreme drought, with conditions similar to those in previous years that saw devastating blazes.
“Over the past week there has been unusual weather across the country. Extreme dryness that was accompanied by strong easterly winds of an intensity not seen for several years,” climate expert Dr. Amir Givati of Tel Aviv University told The Times of Israel.
“The extreme dryness of the vegetation combined with the dry air and strong easterly winds blowing across the country caused a wave of fires that spread quickly, and also a heavy haze that covered the country’s skies,” Givati said, explaining that the haze was caused by those same strong winds carrying dust from the deserts of Iraq and Jordan to Israel.
“Similar situations of extreme drought occurred in 2010 and 2016,” Givati said, referring to two particularly bad fire seasons in Israel’s history.
The weeks running up to the December 2010 Carmel Fire, which claimed 44 lives, were significantly dry. The fall of 2016 saw barely any precipitation ahead of a nationwide outbreak of fires that left thousands homeless.
“The trend is toward an increase in these events in our region,” Givati warned.
Even with the forecast showing some rain in the coming days, the parched earth is often unable to absorb torrential downfalls, leading it to run off and potentially cause flooding.
However, the warm temperatures over the past month have been a far cry from last year, when Israel experienced the wettest November since 1994, causing extensive flooding and damage in several coastal cities.
Givati warned that this swing from one extreme to the other should serve as a warning of the dangers of climate change.
“[We are seeing] the increase in the standard deviations and extremes of weather phenomena in the world and here. One rainy year with floods, and a year later we are in a drought and fires,” he said.
“This is a direct result of climate change. Global warming is causing an increase in extremes on both sides, and it is expected that these phenomena will worsen in our region,” he said.
Givati said that climatic modeling predicted the rainy season in Israel will continue to shorten, ending earlier in the spring and starting later in the fall.
In the near future, he said the winter rains were expected to arrive at a slower pace this year, at least initially.
“In such future scenarios, we will receive more and more dust and haze storms in the Israeli fall and the prolonging of the fire season from summer into autumn,” he said.
Nir Stav, head of the Israel Meteorological Service, struck a more cautious tone over the extreme swing from last November to this year, saying October and November are known to be transition months in terms of climate.
Stav said that, looking at historical records, the weather can “zigzag” and it’s not rare for November to be dry or relatively dry, with just a few rainy days.
However, he also warned that the hot and dry conditions in Israel were the result of global warming and the weather was similar to the periods in the run-up to the fires of 2010 and 2016.
“We are in the middle of a trend of warming climate, and therefore once this month is over we will probably discover that this was one of the hottest Novembers we have had,” he told The Times of Israel.
“We had quite a lot of days with temperatures reaching and even crossing 30 degrees Celsius,” he said. “You can always go back [in history] and find such years, but it’s clear that as the temperatures go up, the probability of a warmer November is higher and we will see the trend of the number of days crossing 30 degrees in November is increasing from decade to decade, and this will increase with global warming.”
“Of course when you have prolonged periods with no rain and dry conditions, you get forest fires. And this is what we saw this year,” he said.
Hundreds of families were evacuated on Saturday and Sunday as Israel saw a rash of wildfires nationwide amid hot and dry conditions with strong easterly winds. A number of buildings were damaged as dozens of firefighting crews battled the blazes from the ground and air.
Stav also said those very same hot and windy conditions were seen in 2010 and 2016.
“[The Carmel fire] in 2010 occurred in the beginning of December on a hot and dry day after there was almost not a single drop of rain throughout November and there were also the same strong easterly winds that we are seeing now,” Stav said.
“And in November 2016 when we had fires all over Israel, it was the same dry desert winds from the east. These situations are occurring and their frequency will probably increase,” he said.