IIt is the legendary sea crossed by Ulysses and the Vikings, a body of water that has been the source of civilizations, culture and commerce as well as countless myths and legends. It is the vacation destination for millions of people who enjoy its splendid beaches, verdant islands and ancient ruins.
But the Mediterranean Sea coastline is turning into wasteland, as shown by the vast fires that have engulfed parts of Greece, Turkey, Italy, Algeria and Tunisia.
“The climate will be desert all around the Mediterranean by the end of the century,” says Levent Kurmaz, director of the Center for Climate Change and Policy Studies at Bogazici University in Istanbul.
Scientists say the region’s unique geographic location – a body of water sandwiched between three giant land masses – makes it particularly vulnerable to climate change. The region is already exceeding global average temperature increases of more than 20% since the end of the 19th century. Researchers have detected many disturbing patterns, including warmer temperatures and altered precipitation.
“I clearly see different trends in the Mediterranean basin in terms of increasingly severe drought [and] a little more unpredictable and frequent, average temperatures rising and extreme heat waves, ”explains Gokce Sencan, a climate researcher based in California.
Fires have devastated tens of thousands of hectares of forests over vast areas along the Mediterranean coast in recent weeks. At least eight people have died in Turkey, where the fires have concentrated in the southwest. Four people were killed in forest fires in the forested mountainous region of Kabylie in Algeria, east of the capital.
The Tunisian province of Bizerte was hit by a forest fire on Monday amid strong winds and temperatures reaching 122F (50C). Morocco suffered forest fires in July that destroyed 1,200 hectares of forest.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said 586 fires broke out last week across the country.
“It is an unprecedented disaster,” said Christian Solinas, the governor of the Italian island of Sardinia.
The fires have displaced thousands of people, burned precious forests and killed countless numbers of living creatures.
“Tens of thousands of animals have died in the fires for no reason,” said Emir Eksioglu, an environmental activist in Turkey. “Bears, deer, squirrels, pigs, turtles. People’s love for animals gives me hope. But I don’t see the same hope in government policies.
Although Spain and Portugal have been spared from the worst forest fires so far this year, Professor Kurmaz warns that the expected warm temperatures could also cause serious fires in the Iberian Peninsula.
Although rising air temperatures are helping to make drier forests more susceptible to forest fires, uncontrolled land use has exacerbated the problem, says Irem Daloglu Cetinkaya, environmental specialist at Bogazici University in Istanbul. .
“These forest fires are not just due to climate change,” she says. “There is also the accumulation of too much waste, changes in land use and development. There are two things going on at the same time. “
Experts have warned of the potential effects of rising temperatures on the Mediterranean for years. A study prepared last year by McKinsey and Associates predicted an increase in the number of heat waves, increased drought and decreased rainfall, devastating food production and decimating tourism in Mediterranean states.
“The Mediterranean basin is often seen as the ultimate in climate, comfort and culture,” the report says. “However, climate change can worsen the Mediterranean climate and disrupt vital industries such as tourism and agriculture.”
In a separate study published last year, two scientists from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) argued that the Mediterranean’s unique location makes it particularly vulnerable to climate change. As rising temperatures will be accompanied by increased precipitation across much of the world, the Mediterranean is grappling with both warmer and drier weather.
The wind pattern creates a natural high pressure system associated with hot, dry weather over the Mediterranean. Meanwhile, the temperature difference between land and sea is reduced faster in the Mediterranean than elsewhere because it is surrounded by three land masses.
“What is really different about the Mediterranean compared to other regions is the geography,” researcher Alexandre Tuel told an MIT journal. “Basically you have a great sea surrounded by continents, which really doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world. “
Professor Kurmaz, whose team is about to publish an article on forest fires, predicts that by the turn of the century, the climate in southern Turkey, southern Greece and southern Greece Italy will be similar to that of Cairo and the southern Iraqi city of Basra.
“We’re heading towards that,” he says. “It won’t happen overnight. “
Scientists say governments can make efforts to mitigate, adapt and perhaps even reverse some of the disastrous changes. The Turks have criticized their government for not allocating enough planes specializing in fighting forest fires and for refusing to recognize the local version of the environment-focused Green Party, which Ankara does not recognize as a official political group despite growing support for the party in opinion polls.
Governments can also limit development on vulnerable lands and protect undisturbed green spaces. “We work in forest areas,” explains Cetinkaya. “We use them for recreation. We pollute them. Climate change is sort of inevitable, but we can reduce the impact.
But instead of grappling with the reality of climate change, those living in countries affected by wildfires are instead engaging in conspiracies. Some Turks, for example, alleged that Kurdish separatists associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) set on fire.
“People in Italy think it’s the mafia,” says Ms. Sencan. “People in Greece think it’s the Turks. People in Turkey think it is the PKK. But nobody stops to think: did they all organize to start the fires around the same week? People don’t like to focus on the big picture.