By Grammenos Mastrojeni, Senior Deputy Secretary General of the Union for the Mediterranean
Oceans and seas (henceforth used interchangeably) absorb over 90% of the additional heat generated by the greenhouse effect and then gradually release it across the planet. Humans may not consider oceans as a priority because we are a land species, but ocean warming brings natural disasters to our mainland. With the highest ocean temperatures recorded in 65 years, measured from surface level to a depth of 1.24 miles/2 km, these disasters are on the rise. The fires that raged in Australia and in the Amazon in 2020, and the heavy rainfalls in Europe and China, are evidence of the increased frequency of weather-related disasters. According to the World Meteorological Organisation and the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, weather-related hazards are the main driver of disasters, with a major human and economic toll on developing countries that are often more exposed to hazards and less prepared to address them and their consequences.
Warmer oceans make storms, especially typhoons and hurricanes, more powerful and a warmer atmosphere leads to heavier rainfall, increasing the risk of flooding and, conversely, of extreme fires. The ocean’s delayed response to global warming means that we must expect steadily growing impacts on our lives and most importantly, take action now to prepare for and adapt to changes that will last several decades.
But in this all together worrying picture, the danger is concentrated in one of the most entangled crossroads of interests and balances, one that is crucial to the world at large, the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean is the water mass whose temperature has risen fastest in recent years, confirming what had already been found in 2016 and 2018.
Beyond rapid sea water warming, another recent report released by a network of Mediterranean experts on climate and environmental change, MedECC, considers that the region as a whole is the second fastest warming in the world. The average temperature in the Mediterranean compared to the pre-industrial era has increased by 1.5 C and the region is warming 20% faster than the global average. In the absence of mitigation measures, some areas are set to record increases of up to 2.2 C by 2040, and 3.8 C by 2100, with catastrophic implications for a Mediterranean population that has grown exponentially in the meantime.
For example, our sea level is expected to rise by 20 cm by 2050, which would salinize vast coastal plains and the Nile delta, upsetting the livelihoods of millions of people. Another consequence will be the increase in population exposed to water precariousness from 180 up to 250 million people. The fact that a warmer sea is a long-term driving force for a warmer atmosphere means that the problem will accompany us for a long time and will worsen even in the most idyllic and virtuous scenarios of greenhouse gas emissions mitigation.
We need to prepare for these and many other consequences that may go well-beyond climatic impact. Montesquieu saw European identity as a product of the climatic exception that has blessed Europe since the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago: a mild climate stabilised by the inertia of a huge but closed mass of water. If Montesquieu was right, the same would apply to the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Both areas benefited from the stabilising action of the sea which created the conditions for the agricultural revolution. However, today, with the Mediterranean sea storing and releasing ever increasing amounts of heat into the system, the region’s mild climate is turning into chaos. This is not just a question of wind and rain, nor an academic one: it is about economics, trade and geopolitics. And it is dangerous.