Unless drastic measures are taken, climate change is expected to turn parts of southern European into desert by the end of the century. Average temperatures in the region have already risen by 1.3 degrees Celsius since the late 19th century, well above the global average of 0.85C.
The Mediterranean region is warming fast, and the consequences will be unlike any past droughts or heatwaves. According to a study led by France’s Aix-Marseille University, human-induced climate change “will likely alter ecosystems in the Mediterranean in a way that is without precedent” in the past 10,000 years if greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated.
Using historical data and computer models, the researchers came up with four scenarios pegged to different concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, from a business-as-usual scenario at the worst end to limiting temperature rise below 1.5C at the other end, reports The Guardian.
In three of the four scenarios, including one in which global temperatures rises by 2C, the region would change in an unprecedented manner. And in the business-as-usual extreme with a global warming of nearly 5C, deserts would expand across southern Spain, Portugal and Sicily. Vegetation would also shift and deciduous forests would disappear from much of the Mediterranean basin.
According to the scientists, only the 1.5C Paris climate deal target can save the Mediterranean ecosystems from altering beyond what it has experienced in the past 10,000 years. But given that temperatures in the region have already risen by 1.3C since pre-industrial times, it is also by far the most ambitious scenario.
“The main message is really to maintain at less than 1.5C,” said lead author Joel Guiot. “For that, we need to decrease the emissions of greenhouse gases very quickly, and start the decreasing now, and not by 2020, and to arrive at zero emissions by 2050 and not by the end of the century.”
The Mediterranean is perhaps more sensitive to climate change than any other region in the world. Many people live at sea level, and the region is already experiencing large flows of migration due to political unrest. Prolonged periods of drought due to climate change could spark even larger migrations of people, said Guiot.
According to the Associated Press, the study did not factor in the environmental impact of human activity in the Mediterranean basin, such as converting forest into farmland to grow food.
“If anything, human action will exacerbate what the study projects, and it could turn out to be too optimistic,” Guiot said.