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How Climate Change is Fueling Iran’s Political Instability

Drought.

Year after year after year for the past 15 years, it’s been the reality for Iran.

As with recent severe droughts in places like Syria, Nigeria, India and in other parts of the world, Iran’s drought impacts have forced farmers to abandon fields and move to the cities. It has enhanced economic and physical desperation — swelling the ranks of the poor and displaced. It has produced both food and water insecurity with many families now living from hand and cup to mouth. And it has served as a catalyst for political unrest, protest, and revolt.

(Iran’s Lake Urmia shrinks to ten percent of its former size following a 15 year long drought. Image source: U.S. Department of the Interior.)

Perhaps the most visible sign of this drought’s epic severity is the drying up of the 5,200 square mile expanse of Lake Urmia. The sixth largest salt water lake in the world and the largest lake in the Middle East, Urmia is now a desiccated shadow of its historical range. Just 10 percent of its former size, it is the casualty of both the drought and the dams that have been built to divert water to Iran’s struggling farmers. But it’s not just the lake that’s drying up. In the interior, individual provinces have seen as many as 1,100, or approximately 1/3 of its springs, run out of water.

Iran is on the eastern fringe of the worst drought to hit parts of the Middle East in 900 years. Ninety six percent of the country has been afflicted by escalating drought conditions over the past seven years. A drought so long and deep-running that it has been triggering unrest since at least 2014. A kind of climate change enhanced instability that has been intensifying over recent years.

(Iran shows long term precipitation deficits over 2016-2017 and 2010-2017 in this analysis provided by Iran’s Meteorological Organization.)

The growing drought-driven unrest has thrust climate change into the Iranian political spotlight even as populist farmer uprisings are on the increase. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has directed government to “manage climate change and environmental threats.” However, with climate harms so long-running and with distrust in government so deep, even positive action by Iran’s leaders may be viewed in a negative light. Hindering impetus for response and generating a ripe field for the revolt or fragmentation.

From the scientific perspective, it appears that the effects of climate change are already enhancing the most recent dry period. Temperatures are rising — which increases evaporation. So more rain has to fall for soils to retain moisture. Complicating this issue is the fact that rains are expected to decline by 10 percent even as drier soils are expected to reduce rainfall and snow melt runoff by 25 percent over the next twelve years. Both are impacts caused by climate change and the predicted warming of Iranian summers by 2 to 3 degrees Celsius.

(Under business as usual fossil fuel burning scenarios, wet bulb temperatures are expected to periodically exceed the range in which humans can healthily function over portions of the Persian Gulf region before the end of this Century. Video Source: MIT News.)

Moreover, a recent MIT study from 2015 found that major cities in the Persian Gulf region may be driven past the tipping point for human survivability under business as usual fossil fuel burning (Wet Bulb of 35 C +) by climate change before the end of this Century (see video above). This means that during the worst heatwaves under this scenario, it would be impossible for human beings to retain an internal temperature cool enough to support key body functions while outdoors for even moderate periods. This would result in higher incidences of heat injury and heat mortality than we see even during present enhanced heatwaves.

Though it is uncertain whether collapse pressure driven by climate change has reached a tipping point for Iran similar to the events which enabled Syria’s descent into internal and regional conflict, the warning signs are there. The international community would thus be wise to both prepare responses and to broadly acknowledge climate change’s role in the enflaming of this and other geopolitical hot spots.

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Killing Heat — It Felt Like 165 Degrees in Iran Today

In Iran it was 115 degrees Fahrenheit today (46 C). Add in humidity and the heat index was a stunning 165 F (74 C). But what they really should be concerned about is the wet bulb reading

A Limit to Human Heat Endurance

Thirty five degrees Celsius. According to recent research, it’s the wet bulb temperature at which the human body is rendered physically unable to cool itself in the shade. At which evaporation not longer cools the skin. A temperature that results in hyperthermia, heat exhaustion and heat stroke — even when sitting still and out of direct sunlight over the course of about 1-3 hours. Basically, it’s the physical limits of human heat endurance.

The primary factors involved in determining wet bulb temperature are atmospheric temperature and humidity. The temperature of an air parcel cooled to saturation (100 percent humidity). Basically, it’s the coolest temperature human skin is able to achieve by sweating.

One of the reasons why high heat and high humidity seem so oppressive is the fact that it interferes with water evaporating from your skin keeping your body at its natural temperature (98.6 F). High heat + high humidity means less cooling at skin level, which can result in a pretty rapid over-heating. We’ve all experienced it, that sense of stifling on a hot, muggy day. And there’s a bone-deep reason why it feels so bad. Hit a too-high intensity and it’s a killer.

Persian Gulf Heatwave

(An oppressive heat dome high pressure system settles in over the Persian Gulf. Image source: Ryan Maue.)

At 47 percent relative humidity and 115 degrees Fahrenheit, it felt like 165 degrees (F) today in Bandar Mahshahr, Iran. That’s a wet bulb temperature of 34.7 C. A temperature near the edge of human limits and the second highest heat index value ever recorded in any official or unofficial measure (the highest unofficial measure was 178 F). It’s the kind of heat that is, quite frankly, deadly.

Heat Dome Settles Over Persian Gulf, Sea Surface Temperatures Spike

Bandar Mahshahr sits at the Northern end of the Persian Gulf. A region of water that features some of the highest sea surface temperatures on Earth. Over the past week, an oppressive heat dome high pressure system began to settle over the region. Air temperatures around the Gulf hit well above 110 F in many locations. In Baghdad, they soared to 122 degrees F (50 C). Yesterday and today, the sea surface temperatures also sweltered — ranging as high as 34.6 C (94 degrees F).

Since ocean surface temperatures produce latent heat and determine the maximum moisture loading of the Earth atmosphere, maximum sea surface temperature is a good basic yardstick to determine if surface wet bulb temperatures are capable of hitting or exceeding the human survivability threshold at 35 C. And what we are seeing is that the near Persian Gulf region is steadily entering this dangerous range.

image

(Sweltering sea surface temperatures like those now visible in the Persian Gulf can support heatwaves that the human body did not evolve to endure. Image source: Earth Nullschool.)

As the heat dome continues to settle in over the next week, there is increasing risk to the people living in the Persian Gulf region. Some have access to cooled shelters, life saving ice and water. But many do not. At particular risk are the over 3 million Iraqis displaced by the violent conflict wracking that fractured state. Chronic electricity and water cuts throughout the region also lends to the overall vulnerability. It’s a current crisis. But it is one that occurs in an overall worsening context.

As the world’s oceans continue to be warmed by heat trapped through human greenhouse gas emissions,  sea surface temperature thresholds will be driven inexorably higher. The potential moisture content in the near surface atmosphere will rise and so will temperatures. This will increasingly generate heatwaves which the human body simply does not have the physical capacity to endure. Overall, this is one of the reasons we see more mass casualty events as a result of heatwaves — like the events occurring this year in Pakistan and India. It’s a case of pushing the atmospheric heat and moisture loading beyond human survivability thresholds. And we’re steadily doing that now. Let’s hope that this week’s Persian Gulf heatwave doesn’t add another hothouse mass casualty event to the growing list.

Links:

Physical Limits to Adaptation

Middle East Broils Under Extreme Heatwave

Iran City Hits Suffocating Heat Index

Earth Nullschool

Pakistan Heatwave Mass Casualty Event

India Heatwave Mass Casualty Event

Hat Tip to Robert in New Orleans

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