'Sea Levels Will Rise by Half a Meter, Enough to Flood Cities. Think of Tel Aviv'

Meteorological service’s climatology chief says climate change could make Eilat as hot as Abu Dhabi

Head of the climatology branch of the Israel Meteorological Service, Avner Furshpan.
Eyal Toueg

Avner Furshpan is a busy man these days. After a series of heavy rains and flooding in Israel, and amid growing talks of climate change globally, the head of the climatology branch of the Israel Meteorological Service has been deluged with phone calls seeking information and demanding that reports be prepared.

Are Israeli officials waking up to the problem of climate change late in the game? “Maybe, but at least they have woken up,” answered Furshpan in an interview with TheMarker last week. “If they haven’t done anything until now, it doesn’t mean that they have missed out.”

A condensed version of the interview follows.

Let’s start with the scariest scenario for Israel. What’s the worst thing that could happen?

“I believe that the central thing regarding climate change is the rise in temperature. That could melt continental glaciers enough to raise sea levels not by 10 centimeters but by half a meter. That’s enough to flood cities. Think of Tel Aviv.”

Only glaciers? What about droughts? Heat that would make life difficult?

“That, too. Today the average temperature in Jerusalem in July-August is 30 degrees [Celsius]. That could reach 31, even 32 degrees in 2035-50. If we do nothing and nothing changes, by 2100 we could reach 35 degrees … Israel is without question already warming more than the average, and the expectations is that it will continue to warm significantly.”

What about the resort town of Eilat?

“Eilat will reach temperatures like it’s never known, like there have never been in the country. It will be like Abu Dhabi or another hot place in the Persian Gulf. The average there is 43-44 degrees, compared with 40 degrees in Eilat in the summer.

“When the world warms, it impacts not only on the average but on the extremes. In France, for example, a record was hit in the summer of 2003 of 44.1 degrees and it happened again last June at 46 degrees. I was in London last year when the record for heat was broken for Britain – from 38.5 degrees to 38.7.”

What’s worse? The higher average or the higher extreme?

“The extreme causes major disasters. On the other hand, the average kills silently.”

A bushfire raging in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa, Israel, November 24, 2016
JACK GUEZ/AFP

Meaning?

“Rising temperatures not only influence the melting of glaciers but also atmospheric circulation, so in some places there’s a decrease in rainfall and in others there is an increase. For example, in Northern Europe there is an upward trend, but for us, looking at the last 30 years, there has been a decline in precipitation, especially in the last 20 years.”

In fact, over the last two years Israel has had a lot of rain.

“When we talking about climate change, we’re looking at the longest possible timeframe. By the way, in 1931-60 we experienced a long dry spell in Israel. So you can’t prove with precision that the drop in rainfall over the last 20-30 years is only due to climate change. However, without question we are experiencing warming, and that warming affects atmospheric circulation.”

There won’t be rain?

“There will always be rain, but there will be a little less. It doesn’t mean that Jerusalem will turn into a desert, but it does mean the amount of rainfall could fall from 537 millimeters on average annually to a range of 450-480 millimeters annually. This is definitely something that could occur.”

A woman crosses a flooded street, Nahariya, Israel, January 8, 2020
Rami Shllush

Furshpan warns against becoming indifferent to the crisis just because there are periods of heavy rain. “There will be rainstorms, but that doesn’t mean the drought won’t come,” he says. “It will come. You may now get a rainy year this year, maybe the next year, too, maybe even a rainy decade, but eventually we will see a drop.”

And what about temperatures?

“Exactly. If a specific year seem chillier – 2019 for example was cold relative to 2018 – the warming will come. Even if you don’t agree on what’s causing it, know that temperatures are starting to rise, which is important in terms of preparing and coping with it.”

We can do that?

“We can because it’s still a small change. We can reduce our effect on climate change on the planet, for example by preparing for higher levels of rain intensity. It won’t increase by 80% or 100% but by 5% or 10%.”

Is that what happened in Tel Aviv and Nahariya with the flooding?

“I don’t know if it’s because of that, but it’s logical that there is a connection. The connection is not in the sense that everything is due to ‘climate change,’ it’s that the odds of events like this happening are higher.”

It’s already evident that this will be a good year for rain.

“Yes, in some places we’ve already exceeded the annual average.”

Israelis protest against climate change, Tel Aviv, December 27, 2019
Tomer Appelbaum

And what about farmers, who always say that they want rain, but only when they need it? Will this change because of climate change?

“Rains falls in Israel in the winter – December, January, February – less in the transitional seasons and none in the summer. That’s what we’ve got. Since the start of December, there have been 22-24 days of rain in the north and that hasn’t changed over the years. Our investigations revealed that the breaks between rainfalls have grown somewhat, perhaps by half a day or a day on average. That will grow.”

What does the government need to do?

It needs to understand that the world is warming. If you reduce emissions, you reduce the environmental impact. But major planning in development is also needed – more roads, buildings and sealed areas affect flooding. This is, for example, the kind of thing that I recommend to my friends at the Interior Ministry’s planning administration and to the local government committee that is in charge of climate change assessments.”