Sweatin’ the Mediterranean Heat

Guest Commentary from Figen Mekik

This quote from Drew Shindell (NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, New York) hit me very close to home: “Much of the Mediterranean area, North Africa and the Middle East rapidly are becoming drier. If the trend continues as expected, the consequences may be severe in only a couple of decades. These changes could pose significant water resource challenges to large segments of the population” (February, 2007-NASA, Science Daily).

I live in Michigan, but Turkey is my home where I go for vacation on the Med. This year’s drought was especially noteworthy, so I would like to share some of my observations with you, and then explore the links between the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), Mediterranean drought and anthropogenic global warming (AGW).

The 10-hour flight from Chicago to Istanbul often inspires passengers to romanticize about Istanbul, both tourists and natives alike. Istanbul is the city of legends, forests, and the Bosphorus. It is an open museum of millennia of history with archeological and cultural remnants surrounded by green lush gardens. It is the place where east meets west; where blue meets green; where the great Mevlâna’s inviting words whisper in the wind “Come, come again, whoever you are, come!”

So you can imagine our collective horror as the plane started circling Istanbul and we saw a dry, desolate, dusty city without even a hint of green anywhere.

The Marmara region of Turkey where Istanbul is located received 34% less precipitation than average this past winter; and the Aegean Region, which includes the city of Izmir, received 43% less precipitation than average since October of 2006. Precipitation this low was unprecedented in these regions in the last three decades. So is this a freak year, you may ask?

This next graph shows observational spring precipitation data between 1950 and 2007 (shown with green dots) for Istanbul and multi-centennial (1635-2000) spring precipitation reconstruction from tree ring data for the NW Black Sea region in Turkey (pink and red dots show a 5-year running average for precipitation data from tree rings) (data). Multi-centennial tree ring precipitation reconstructions for the Marmara region are not available. Although the observational precipitation record for Istanbul is generally lower than the spring precipitation reconstruction for the NW Black Sea region, both observational and reconstructed data follow a similar trend, except for two unusually rainy springs in 1998 and 2000 in Istanbul. Also note in the tree ring precipitation data that although the amount of precipitation has fluctuated throughout centuries, it has not consistently dropped for more than 3-4 years until the 1970’s. Since then there has been a steady decline until 2000 (the red part of the graph).

In the summer of 2007, temperatures rose over 46°C in many parts of Turkey as well as the entire Mediterranean region. This heat combined with aridity is estimated to have cost Turkish farmers ~$3.9 billion. Turkey’s wheat crop dropped by about 15%. The Turkish Aegean region alone suffered from 30% lower harvest yields in cotton, corn and tobacco and a 50% drop in fig production.

By mid-summer, the drought started to affect major cities. Ankara (~4 million), the capital, suffered serious water rationing this summer (two days on, two days off). Car washing and lawn watering were outlawed within city limits. With the unforeseen burst of the main water pipe feeding the metropolis, the whole city was left without running water for an entire week. Hospitals had to be issued groundwater in tankers, and city officials started to debate whether to delay public school openings until mid-October to contain potential spread of disease. By mid-August, Ankara had only 5% of total capacity in its reservoirs and dams.

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