Long, intense and dangerous heat waves likely to become more common, expert says

But as the Mediterranean region warms 20% faster than the global average, an ambitious government roadmap, with 31 action points to help Israel adapt, remains without funding

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

Defying COVID-19 restrictions, Israelis enjoyed the beach in Tel Aviv, as temperatures rose to 40 degrees in some parts of the country, May 16, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Defying COVID-19 restrictions, Israelis enjoyed the beach in Tel Aviv, as temperatures rose to 40 degrees in some parts of the country, May 16, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The heat wave that baked Israel all of last week may yet be declared the longest on record, with scorching temperatures lasting six days.

While scientists employ caution when asked whether a single event can be  directly linked to global warming, a leading expert on climatology and climate change says it is probable that sizzlers like this will become more common in the future.

Professor Hadas Saaroni, an expert on climatology and climate change at Tel Aviv University’s Geography and Human Environment Department, told The Times of Israel that the key was not to look at single events but the bigger picture.

Saaroni said changes in the frequency, intensity and duration of extreme events was definitely noticeable and linked to climate change, with the probability that Israel will suffer more scorchers like the one that ended Friday.

The Mediterranean region as a whole is a climate warming hotspot, having  warmed approximately 1.5°C since pre-industrial times, which is 20 percent faster than the global average.

Prof Hadas Saaroni, an expert on climatology and climate change at Tel Aviv University’s Geography and Human Environment Department. (Screenshot)

Saaroni explained that this above-average warming was especially notable during the Israeli summer and was related to complex changes in air circulation systems.

Last week’s heat wave, from May 16 to 22, saw temperatures in some parts of the country soar past 45 degrees Celsius (113 Fahrenheit). It caused three deaths, prompted the evacuation of residents due to brush fires, set a record for May power usage, and forced several cities to cancel classes because of the high heat combined with the need for stifling anti-coronavirus face masks.

It was caused by two main factors, Saaroni said.

High pressure in the upper reaches of the atmosphere pulled dry heat downward toward the ground, where it became compressed and hotter.

At the same time, a phenomenon called the Red Sea Trough brought hot and dry winds from lands to Israel’s south and east, blocking the westerly winds that create the waves in the Mediterranean Sea and usually bring cooling relief, as well as humidity, to areas along the coast.

The Mediterranean Sea was calm when the beaches officially opened, on May 20, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

It was because the easterly winds blocked the westerly ones that the Mediterreanean was so still during the heat wave and the air was so uncharacteristically dry along the coast.

Intense solar radiation and an almost complete lack of cloud cover compounded the heat.

“It’s important to stress the impact of these heat waves and not to forget about climate change because of coronavirus,” Saaroni said.

“In conditions like these, the danger for forest fires is extremely high. The Carmel Forest fire in 2010 (during which 44 people died) was preceded by a long Red Sea Trough, even though the temperatures were lower. We are better prepared today, but the situation will become more and more dangerous.”

Adaptation is the key

Tiny Israel’s ability to mitigate global warming is extremely limited, although reducing the nation’s dependency on fossil fuels to cut greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution would hugely benefit the country’s public health.

The key, says former chief scientist of the Environmental Protection Ministry, Sinaia Netanyahu, is adaptation.

In December 2017, just before she left the ministry (her post has not been filled since), Netanyahu presented recommendations for a national plan to adapt to climate change and extreme weather events — a hefty tome and the fruit of several years of work involving academics and senior officials from government ministries, local government and a host of organizations.

Sinaia Netanyahu, former Chief Scientist at the Environmental Protection Ministry. (Government Press Office)

The document has five main objectives: reducing damage to people and property, building the resilience of natural systems, strengthening the base of scientific knowledge, raising awareness and educating the public, and promoting technological innovation.

It is broken down into 31 action plans. These include preparing or updating legislation as well as national and local natural disaster readiness plans; ensuring the use of crops that can withstand climate pressure; conserving water and soil; rehabilitating streams and preventing pollution; introducing urban forests; creating enough buffer areas to control the spread of forest fires; developing models to predict fire spreading and floods; safeguarding heritage sites; protecting biodiversity; keeping invasive species out; improving scientific as well as public knowledge; and ensuring that urban planners insist on green building codes and the reduction of “urban heat islands” — areas where greenery is replaced by surfaces such as asphalt and concrete which absorb rather than reflect the sun’s heat and create higher than necessary ambient temperatures.

“The first step is for the government to assume responsibility for the issue,” the report emphasizes, because of the need to involve so many disciplines, bodies and systems. Steps toward climate adaptation must be incorporated into every ministry’s decision making processes.

The second step is to create and budget a directorate to lead implementation and coordinate between the many bodies involved. “Without the establishment of such a body to lead, initiate and push, it is reasonable to assume that the proposed program will not be implemented,” the report warns.

Netanyahu had called for climate scientists to head the directorate and for NIS 10 ($2.8) million to be provided annually for ten years.

Israeli firefighters extinguish a forest fire near Moshav Sitria on the coastal plain, May 21, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

In the summer of 2018, the government formally adopted the report and a directorate was appointed — not under a climate scientist but the ministry’s senior deputy director for natural resources, who has a host of other responsibilities as well. No funding was allocated and no annual reports on progress have been published, contrary to the terms of the strategic plan that the government approved.

Not willing to wait any longer, the Israel Meteorological Service went ahead in December and published its part of what should have been a more wide-ranging directorate report.

It showed that the average temperature in Israel rose by 1.4 degrees Celsius (2.52 degrees Fahrenheit) between 1950 and 2017 and that there had been a drop in the frequency of cold nights of under 7°C over the past 30 years.

The IMS report (Hebrew) warned that by 2050 the average temperature is expected to climb by another degree Celsius, or in a worst-case scenario 1.2 degrees, unless there is a dramatic reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions — the main cause of climate warming.

Unless action is taken, the trends are expected to continue during the 21st century, by the end of which there could be 40 more “hot nights”of over 20°C a year on average and a 15%-25% drop in rainfall compared to the average for the period of 1961-1990, the report added.

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