What’s the Deal With a Hot Middle East and Sahara?

Hello All,

leaving the comedy club deserted

leaving the comedy club deserted

Welcome to another edition of “WTD”, the blog whose humor is as dry as the Atacama.*

In this week’s post, we’ll chat about climate change’s effect on an already warm region of the world and how it may impact human migration and civilization patterns. We’ll also look at past migration patterns that have resulted from changing climactic events.

The Current: From Hot to Hotter to Unbearable

According to a new study, the regions of the Middle East and North Africa will experience a severe increase in extreme hot temperatures and dryness that may make human civilization in these areas unbearable. The study showed that by 2050, these regions will have hot days averaging 46 degrees Celsius (114 degrees Fahrenheit) and that these hot days will occur 5 times more frequently than present day.


Forecast for the next 3 decades

This warming trend as part of overall human induced climate change has occurred more drastically in the polar regions and in the desert regions. Since 1970, the number of extremely hot days in the Sahara and Middle East has doubled. If the current projections play out (even if the Paris agreements are followed), instead of 16 very hot days, this region will experience 80 such days. In the worst of projections (with current greenhouse gas emission levels), the number of hot days rises to 118, a frequency of temperature that would likely make the region unlivable for most human beings.

Climate Exodus and Migration

In addition to the extreme high temperatures, dust storms and particulates will also increase dramatically and likely increase pressure for human migration from those areas. If this is the future for the Middle East and North Africa, than more than 500 million people will be faced with the prospect of leaving their homes and parts of the roots of human civilization.

Big Populations light up the Middle East

Big Populations light up the Middle East

But the consequences of climate change are already inducing migration in the United States. This is the case especially in Louisiana where the state has lost a land mass the size of Delaware on the deltas in the Gulf of Mexico. For Isle de Jean Charles, a small island along the coast, has just received the first Federal Funds ($48 million) to move the entire community of 60 people to higher ground.

Although this is the first of its kind, it likely will not be the last resettlement for coastal communities or islands as there are 50 – 200 million people who will be the front lines to rising seas from the higher global temperatures and will face migration by 2050.

Has a changing climate affected human migration and survival before? What were the causes and results of those migratory patterns due to climate change? Let’s take a look at some historical and geological examples that could help shed some light on possible future events.

The Little Ice Age

A period of global cooling between the 14th and 19th centuries nicknamed the “Little Ice Age” saw global cooling occur on a scale of reduced temperature of about 1 degree Celsius. This had followed a Medieval Climate Anomaly that had lasted for 5 centuries. Popular accounts in the young United States include the “year without a summer” of 1816 in which New Englanders experienced snowstorms in June and severe crop shortages. The same time period also saw the River Thames ice over and good portions of Northern sea inlets freeze over, an unusual phenomenon. These are commonly depicted in popular European artwork.

ice skating on the Thames

ice skating on the Thames

More importantly, the global cooling period had a profound geopolitical effect.  Much of Europe depended on Cod (that’s right, the fish) whether salted as Bacalao or fresh for protein supplies. This vital resource began to migrate however as temperatures cooled and was one reason that seafaring nations began to construct ships capable of traveling further distances. This combined with the difficulties in trade and obstruction with the Islamic Empire which ruled the historical passages proved an impetus for exploration and the subsequent colonial expansion to the “New World.”

Though this large impact eventually brought about huge migrations (whether forced through bondage, religious persecution, or by choice) the most significant example of migration is the Irish Potato Famine which of course led to large Irish immigrants to the United States.

Note: The Little Ice Age and the Medieval Climate Anomaly are often cited as examples as to why current climate change and global warming are “nothing to worry about” and that Earth naturally experiences these changes and are not man-made. True enough that Earth does experience climactic changes, but they are due to natural occurrences such as increased volcanic activity and lower solar incidences (ie. solar flares, etc…).

Historical Responses to Climate Change

A recent study  from researchers at Washington State University on ancient civilizations between 500 AD – 1400 AD in the Pecos River region of current day New Mexico show that culture and geographic shift correlated with climactic shifts such as the 50 year long extreme drought that caused the abandonment of Chaco Canyon by the Chacoan peoples.

Chaco Canyon should not be confused with Choco Mountain

Chaco Canyon should not be confused with Choco Mountain

Using historical tree ring data and its effect on maize production, the authors argue that extreme droughts caused the peoples in the 4 corners area of the current day U.S. not only migrated, they changed their way of societal structure from one of economic hierarchy to one with a more communal emphasis. This is shown in the change in the physical living structures from one of differentiated home sizes to the more even “cookie cutter” variety.

A changing climate that upended tradition among agriculturally dependent societies must have resulted in intra-societal violence and in the end the authors argue that this changed the political situation significantly.

More to our current discussion of climate change’s effect on the Middle East, the historical record has an analogy for us to look to when it comes to climactic changes affecting major events in the Middle East. Another recent study looks at the fall of Constantinople (capital of the Eastern Roman Empire / Byzantium) and how a change of climate conditions may have contributed to the Byzantine collapse and fall of Constantinople in 1204 to the Islamic Empire.

Byzantium (Constantinople) with invasions included

Byzantium (Constantinople) with invasions included

The authors argue that continually arid winters and marked dryness in the 12th century followed by highly variable changes significantly affected the wheat production that had been so productive during more favorable conditions in the 10th and 11th centuries. This along with external political and military pressures was an important contributing factor to the Empire’s collapse. While Constantinople is not quite Syria, the pressures facing the people of that state also may include climactic pressures on food production and supplies. This of course was not a direct cause of the 2011 uprising and subsequent civil war, but could be a contributing factor.

Conclusion: The Migration Has Already Begun

Fresh off the boat, and influencing more xenophobic policies in Europe

Fresh off the boat, and influencing more xenophobic policies in Europe

The focus of the news the past 2 years has been on the refugee crisis on the Southern doorstep of Europe with people leaving behind conflicts and political turmoil in Syria, Afghanistan, Central Africa, and elsewhere. The refugees have already caused an uproar amongst the EU members and an economy that is still in the purgatory of recovery from the Great Recession. Imagine what the crisis will look like in 3 to 4 decades when temperatures force people to leave their homelands that will be suffering under an unrelenting sun.

the slowly fading isle and the new climate refugees of the U.S.

the slowly fading isle and the new climate refugees of the U.S.

As we discussed, many political turmoils have a background connection to climate changes, mostly in the realm of effects to agriculture. Now that we are beginning to the see the effects of human caused climate change to island nations from rising seas, record setting temperatures, and melting permafrost in tundra regions, the repercussions to human cultural change and migration patterns will be far more severe.

Many more people live on the planet than the historical examples given and especially in areas that will be hardest hit by the coming changes – from entire nations like the Philippines and Bangladesh, to regions such as the Middle East and North Africa. The difficulties that lie ahead even with more sanguine climate projections do not bode well for political calm.

Until the next heat wave,

Your Faithful Historian,

Eric G. Prileson

Sources and Further Reads:








About eprileson

I am a historian and writer who wants to bring to light current events through a historical perspective. It is difficult to understand today's current events without having a grasp of what has occurred before. This is a running thread to help keep people informed about the present and remind everyone to not forget their past. Enjoy and please comment!
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