Climate Change Forecast for Jordan: 30% Less Rain, Triple the Droughts by 2100

Recovery by Syrian irrigated farming could make Jordan even thirstier, warn the scientists.

Not only sheep survived in the Black Desert of Jordan, 14,500 years ago: Much later, around 6,000 years ago, somebody built stone structures and lived there.
Stone structures in the Black Desert of Jordan,dating about 6,000 years ago. B. Müller-Neuhof / Dai-Orientabteilung

The crisis in Syria, now in its seventh year, has stressed Jordan's resources terribly as civilians fled the country in droves, many seeking shelter in the neighboring country. In a bitter irony, once the war ends and if Syrian agriculture rebounds, Jordan will be even worse off as it struggles to contend with climate change and mounting thirst, says a forecast for the decades to come. 

Climate change is already accelerating the desertification of North Africa and the Middle East. While Houston was hit with its third "once in 500 years" flood in three years – this region is experiencing the opposite. Forecasts for northern Israel and for Jordan in the era of global warming include more frequent and longer droughts, and lower river flows.

Deepthi Rajsekhar of the California Department of Water Resources in Sacramento and colleagues reached their conclusions by modeling surface water resources and demand for water for farming through 2100 under the usual spectrum of climate change scenarios, from the “optimistic” scenario to the foreboding “business as usual” scenario, in which the world takes no meaningful policy action and greenhouse gases continue to be emitted and to accrue.

Their bottom line is terrifying: Comparing the baseline period to 2070–2100, the forecast is for the average temperature to increase by 4.5 degrees Celsius.

Average rainfall in Jordan is expected to decrease by a third, and multiple drought-type occurrences are expected to triple in frequency, from about 8 in 30 years to about 25 in 30 years.

The surface of the Black Desert of Jordan, covered in basalt rocks. Archaeologists could be forgiven for surprise at discovering signs of life, from sheep 14,500 years ago to humans over thousands of years.
B. Müller-Neuhof / Dai-Orientabteilung

Making things worse, Jordan is downstream from Syria on the Yarmouk River, which threatens its water security even more.

At this point the scientists are predicting that Jordan will get 51% to 75% less Yarmouk water compared to the historical flow rate. And that's if Syria remains a wreck. If irrigated farming there recovers to pre-conflict terms, the water flow over the Syria-Jordan border through the Yarmouk would be half that.

After factoring in land and water use in Syria and Jordan itself, anticipated temperature increases and droughts, the scientists' conclusion is that Jordan is likely to face an enormous freshwater problem.

Countries expecting more drought, and that depend on upstream nations for fresh water, will suffer from water insecurity, they conclude.

Counting sheep in the Black Desert

The problems Jordan is expected to face are an example of why the scientific community has become increasingly clamorous in urging policymakers to take climate change and global warming seriously, and instate policies to reduce carbon emissions, fast.

Late last year scientists warned that over 80% of all planetary ecological systems have already been impacted by climate change and late last month, they warned that keeping global warming at "just" 1.5 degrees Celsius, which would make life onerous enough, is approaching the impossible.

The Yarmouk, with the dam open (2012).
Yaron Kaminsky

By the year 2100, the global temperature is 90 percent likely to increase by 2.0 to 4.9 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and at this point, there is only a 5 percent chance that global temperatures will increase by less than 2 degrees.

Ironically, just this month the world learned that the forbidding Black Desert of Jordan, so named for its basalt sand and reputation, had sustained wild sheep some 14,500 years ago.

The Black Desert had previously been thought to be too inhospitable to sustain anything much beyond gerbils and the odd nomad. (Here is a link to the paper "Expansion of the known distribution of Asiatic mouflon (Ovis orientalis) in the Late Pleistocene of the Southern Levant".)

The University of Copenhagen archaeologists who studied the archaeological remains in the Black Desert – of human habitation and bones – conclude that we really don't know about the ancient distribution of species. They also optimistically conclude that their findings of mouflon sheep and human survival in this marginal environment "illustrate how adaptive humans were nearly 14,500 years ago in a period of climatic change."

But there's climate change and there's climate change and 14,500 years after we discovered that, the Jordanian desert may prove unsurvivably inhospitable after all.