Hotter here, wetter there: How and why climate change will remake our world

A basic primer on the science behind global warming and why Israel’s location makes it particularly susceptible to the effects of a heating planet

Sue Surkes

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

People walk along a trail, July 11, 2021, in Death Valley National Park, California (AP/John Locher)
People walk along a trail, July 11, 2021, in Death Valley National Park, California (AP/John Locher)

Left to its own devices, nature is an artwork of balance and cycles.

Carbon dioxide, for example — the most abundant global warming gas — produced by the likes of oceans, erupting volcanoes and decomposing life, is absorbed by forests and swamps and all the creatures that use it to produce energy via photosynthesis.

Water, which evaporates from the oceans, condenses when it cools and falls back to earth as rain, is absorbed by the soil and makes its way into streams and rivers, above and below ground, which flow back into the sea.

The climate has cooled and warmed for as long as records exist.

But with the advent of industrialization, human activity has altered Earth’s delicate balancing act and caused what most scientists agree is unprecedented warming.

The massive increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide caused mainly by burning fossil fuels forms a kind of blanket that stops the sun’s heat from escaping from Earth.

Israelis attend a rally at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv calling on the government to stop the use of fossil fuels, December 18, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

It is this heat that is causing the glaciers to melt and release more water into the oceans, whose level rose by around 15 centimeters during the 20th century and continues to rise. The water itself is also expanding with the heat.

And the warmer the atmosphere, the more water it is able to hold and release in the form of rain.

Urban development has covered much of the world with asphalt and concrete, and seen the widespread drying of wetlands for construction and agriculture.

This means that when rain falls in large bursts,  there is often nowhere for it to go.

A destroyed house is pictured after floods caused major damage in Schuld near Bad Neuenahr-Ahrweiler, western Germany, on July 16, 2021 (CHRISTOF STACHE / AFP)

In many countries, politicians focused on short term reelection hopes have ignored climate scientists’ warnings and continued with business as usual.

In Brazil, where populist leader Jair Bolsanaro has allowed rampant clearance of the Amazon, the rainforest — a key absorber of carbon dioxide — now emits more of the gas than it absorbs.

China, the world’s biggest emitter, pledged in September to reach carbon neutrality before 2060. But its five-year economic blueprint could lead to a strong rise in greenhouse gas emissions, the Guardian reported in March.

Meanwhile, warming is causing other worrying phenomena such as the melting of the permafrost, expected to release large quantities of carbon dioxide and methane.

This picture taken on December 31, 2019, shows a firefighter hosing down trees and flying embers in an effort to secure nearby houses from brush fires near the town of Nowra in the Australian state of New South Wales. (Photo by SAEED KHAN / AFP)

The world is around one degree Celsius (33.8 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than before major industrialization, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

In its State of the Global Climate 2020, published in April, the WMO noted that concentrations of the major greenhouse gases — carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide — continued to increase despite the temporary reduction in emissions in 2020 related to measures taken in response to COVID-19.

It confirmed that 2011 to 2020 was the warmest decade on record, with global temperature rises contributing to more frequent and severe extreme weather events around the world, including cold and heat waves, floods, droughts, wildfires and storms.

“Overall in 2020, the world remained on course to exceed the agreed temperature thresholds of either 1.5° C or 2° C above pre-industrial levels,” the WMO warned, referring to the levels agreed within the framework of the United Nations Paris Accords of 2015.

In November, the nations of the globe will be called upon to present more ambitious targets for emissions cuts at the UN COP 26 talks in Glasgow, unless it is postponed for a second time due to COVID-19.

The Middle East and North Africa are climate change hotspots because they are so dry.

Temperatures in Israel increased by around 1.4 degrees Celsius between 1950 and 2017, with most of the increases happening over the past 30 years, according to Prof. Yoav Yair, dean of the School of Sustainability at the Interdisciplinary Center, a Herzliya-based university known as IDC.

Read more: Is Israel ready for the coming storm?

Israel — along with the rest of the Middle East and North Africa — is seeing temperatures rise faster than the rest of the world because the band of tropical climate to the north and south of the Equator is expanding, he said.

In this July 9, 2009, photo, Adilla Finchaan, 50, and her husband Ashore Mohammed, 60, check theIr land in Latifiyah, about 30 kilometers (20 miles) south of Baghdad, Iraq. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

Research published two years ago shows that it has been doing so by 0.5 degrees of latitude — equal to 55.5 kilometers (34.5 miles) — per decade since 1979.

According to an article published by the Yale School of the Environment in October 2018, the wet regions of the tropics are contracting and the drier parts of the tropics are expanding, bringing ever-drier weather to places such as the Mediterranean.

These shifts, according to the article, are caused by changes such as the opening of the southern hemisphere ozone hole, warming black soot in polluted air from Asia, and rising air — as well as sea surface — temperatures caused by greenhouse gases [from burning fossil fuels].

As a result, between 1930 and 2013, the Sahara Desert grew in size by 10 percent, pushing north and south.

Jim Salinger, an expert on global warming who has written for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has warned that Israelis should brace themselves for summer heatwave temperatures of 46 degrees Celsius (115°F) by 2050 and up to 50°C (122°F) by 2100, unless governments worldwide meet the challenge of cutting greenhouse gases.

In Israel the widespread use of air conditioners and the country’s ability to desalinate vast quantities of water will help to mitigate the day-to-day effects of searing heat and declining sources of natural water.

But if these benefits are not available to Israel’s neighbors, then thirst- and heat-related stress could push desperate populations into wars for limited resources.

The Environmental Protection Ministry has called on the government to define global warming as a national security threat.

In this August 20, 2013, file photo, Syrian refugees cross into Iraq at the Peshkhabour border point in Dahuk, 260 miles (430 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq. Top scientists are saying that climate change will complicate and worsen existing global security problems, such as civil wars, strife between nations and refugees. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban, File)

As the climate grows more extreme, people who are near the end of their lives will die earlier in a process scientists grimly call mortality harvesting, and with higher temperatures and less vegetation, animals that cannot adapt will increasingly perish from heat exhaustion.

According to the WMO, global warming is also likely to bring more disease and  malnutrition.

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