Israel to Add Heat Waves to 'Threat Map' Amid Grim Climate Projections

The Defense Ministry is expected to create an emergency plan for extreme temperatures as Europe swelters under heat waves and Israel's climate is warming at double the global average

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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A wildfire in the Jerusalem Hills last last summer.
A wildfire in the Jerusalem Hills last last summer.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

Israel's Defense Ministry has decided to add heat waves to Israel's "threat map" and create an emergency plan that would require defense establishment entities to plan for extreme temperatures, as intense heat waves strike Europe this week and Israel faces harsh climate projections.

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Following events in Europe, a number of security bodies have held meetings about Israel’s preparedness for heat waves. Representatives at the meetings admitted they lacked a clear plan to help the population and prevent deaths during the harsh heat waves predicted for Israel. Several participants in the meetings called the situation “worrisome and dangerous,” and asked ministries and the defense establishment to draft an emergency plan to prevent deaths.

“The deaths in Europe are not something that is going to pass over us when more severe heat waves come,” one official said. “We understand that this is as serious as other threats for which Israeli security prepares.” Among other things, officials on the National Security Council said that populations of elderly and poorer people who can’t use air-conditioning should be pinpointed so welfare of health maintenance organization teams can be sent to help them.

Until the past few days, there was a clash between the National Security Council and the National Emergency Management Agency over who should be in charge of the mater. Haaretz reported last month that the emergency management agency didn’t consider severe heat waves a great enough danger to add them to the threat map. The agency argued they are not a sudden or clear threat such as a terror attack or missile strike, and preferred that the security council handle it. So far, the agency has decided that only fires or floods would be added to the scenarios for which security forces must be prepared.

The National Security Council says its position is that it is the agency responsible for monitoring trends involving domestic issues that interface with Israel’s national security and leading strategic national planning with national security implications. On the other hand, the emergency management agency is responsible for fielding emergency bodies and writing plans. Officials with knowledge of the matter say that the agency should be responsible for making sure the activities of emergency agencies are run properly. The agency has not yet responded to a request for comment by Haaretz.

In fact, the National Security Council and the emergency management agency are worried about the deaths in Europe, but are still arguing over which of these bodies will be responsible for preparing for heat waves. The National Security Council has determined that the heat waves endanger Israel, and has established for the first time a forum for climate and national security to examine the risks the climate crisis poses for Israel. It appointed its first director in the council for this matter, but council officials believe the agency should take responsibility as the body in charge of emergency events on the home front. However, the agency has not decided whether heat waves put Israelis at risk, and prefers that the National Security Council handle the matter. The next meeting of the forum is scheduled for August, and until then, the security establishment is expected to decide how and whether to deal with the heat waves.

Research by the Environmental Protection Ministry and Tel Aviv University published last month is the first to associate hundreds of deaths in Israel with prior heat waves. According to the researchers, at least 363 deaths were classified as “excess deaths” – above and beyond the average mortality rate in the three years that preceded this period -– in the eight heat waves that occurred in Israel between 2012 and 2020. The scientists said: “There is a sharp and clear rise in mortality in weeks when heat waves occur, and on the average, every heat wave in Israel could lead to the deaths of 45 people, whose lives could be saved with proper preparation.” The research was carried out on the instructions of Environmental Protection Minister Tamar Zandberg following a report in Haaretz of excess mortality of approximately 150 people in the extreme heat wave of May 2020. Officials in the National Security Council said they believed that an organized plan to protect the home front could prevent most such deaths.

In recent internal discussions, emergency management agency officials said they doubted that heat waves are a threat like missile strikes or earthquakes. According to these officials, the fact that Israel is growing hotter and heat waves will become routine in the country, means that they should not be considered emergencies and therefore the National Security Council should create a plan for such events. Nevertheless, agency sources increasingly expressed concern over the past few days in the light of the deaths in Europe. They are now looking, together with the Meteorological Service and the Environmental Protection Ministry, at the heat forecasts expected in Israel over the next two decades.

Haaretz reported last month that the agency’s position contradicts the statement on the implications of the climate crisis by then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Zandberg in November.

According to the Meteorological Service, Israel’s climate is heating up at double the global average and could suffer heat waves peaking at 50 degrees Celsius (122 degrees Fahrenheit). Official assessments of the weather service describe a “nightmare scenario” of heat waves that are “severe but tolerable” expected in Israel between 2020 and 2030. Every year beginning with the 2030, the country should be prepared for exceptionally high temperatures lasting seven to 10 days, surpassing the 50-degree mark in portions of the country, the meteorological service said.

The scenarios the weather service predicts with certainty have significant implications in several areas, including health, food supply and agriculture. Extreme heat waves are expected to become more frequent and longer. At present, Israel experiences about four heat waves a year, typically lasing four to five days, with a maximum temperature of about 36 degrees Celsius.

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