Climate Change Will Endanger the Hajj, New Study Warns

Extreme weather – including intolerable heat and unexpected cold snaps –could pose extreme dangers for pilgrims visiting Saudi Arabia, cautions MIT study

Muslim pilgrims are reflected on a pilgrim's sunglasses as they walk to cast stones at a pillar in the symbolic stoning of the devil near Mecca, Aug. 13, 2019.
AP Photo/Amr Nabil

The Middle East and North Africa will become uninhabitable at some point in the future, according to climate change models. The weather doesn't have to become intolerable all the time, but any number of days too hot to survive is too many. Now a new paper from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published in Geophysical Review Letters, warns that even before we reach that stage global warming could pose true peril for Muslim pilgrims performing their religious duty of hajj.

At least once in their lifetimes, observant Muslims who can afford the trip and are in adequate health are supposed to make hajj, visiting Mina and Mecca in Saudi Arabia. During the five to six day trip, many of the duties are performed outside, in the open air. "When the hajj comes in summertime, in some years it may not be safe for participants to remain outdoors," point out MIT professor Elfatih Eltahir and others.

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The Muslim calendar, like the Jewish one, is governed by lunar cycles, not the sun. While the hajj is always scheduled for the 12th Muslim month, the timing of that month changes by the Gregorian calendar. Each year the hajj occurs about 11 days earlier.

In 2019 the hajj fell in August, when temperatures in Mecca averaged about 43 degrees Celsius, which is already uncomfortably hot for many people. Saudi officials warned visitors to expect the temperature to hit 50 degrees on some days.

Muslim pilgrims walk to cast stones at a pillar, in the symbolic stoning of the devil near Mecca, Aug. 13, 2019.
AP Photo/Amr Nabil

The good news is that the next time the hajj falls in summer will be in 2047, says the MIT paper. So Saudi Arabia has some time to prepare. The bad news is that the problem with climate change isn't just rising average temperatures – it's the extremes: extreme heat waves, extreme cold and extreme weather.

The forecasts of climate change and global warming remain hazy because of the enormous number of parameters involved. One thing that isn't a forecast but a fact is that average global temperature is correlated to atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

Atmospheric CO2 has shot up into uncharted territory in recent few years. Never before in the planet's history has the level of carbon dioxide changed so fast, or gone so high, say geologists. Also, temperature change follows change in the level of carbon dioxide at a lag. The world has already been experiencing record-breaking heat from the United States to Europe to the Indian subcontinent to the Middle East, and we are apparently heading for much worse.

A study by Umm Al-Qura University that was published in Atmospheric and Climate Sciences in 2014 looked at the average temperature in Mecca from 1985 to 2013, and found a significant increase in the number of hot days and a smaller increase in hot nights. (July is the hottest month, January the coolest.) The conclusion by author Abdellatif Abdou is that Mecca is suffering from a "considerable warming temperature trend." And that was five years ago. Abdou back then counseled the authorities to consider the energy demands for extra cooling, water resources, medical preparedness and more in order to minimize the risks to locals and hajj visitors.

Saudi Arabia in general has been experiencing warming: 0.72 degrees per decade from 1979, Eltahir says. But the maximum temperature has been rising and with it, the peril to pilgrims who could face extreme danger, the MIT paper warns.

The Abraj Al-Bait Towers seen as Muslim pilgrims circumambulate the Kaaba, the cubic building at the Grand Mosque, during the hajj pilgrimage in Mecca, Aug. 12, 2019.
AP Photo/Amr Nabil

Trouble has already happened, like stampedes that killed 1,462 people in 1990 and 769 in 2015, Eltahir points out. Both riots coincided with peak temperature and humidity, a deadly combination. (Heat stress measures the discomfort involved in sweat being unable to evaporate and cool the body because of humidity.)

In general, numerous studies have pointed to hotter weather leading to shorter tempers. In 2014 Scientific American ran a meta-study explaining the correlation between the weather and violence and the differences in temperature don't have to be huge. Crowding is also stressful.

The bottom line is that more and more days are expected to be too hot to survive without countermeasures, and the sooner countermeasures are put into place the better. Even with mitigation measures in place, Eltahir says, "it will still be severe. There will still be problems, but not as bad" as would occur without those measures.

He says that some cooling measures have already been installed, including misting in some outdoor locations. But the Saudi authorities may have no choice in the future but to cap the number of pilgrims, so it can cope with keeping them safely cool in weather extremes.

It bears adding that weather extremes in Saudi Arabia aren't confined to the heat. The winter of 2016 brought snow to the desert kingdom. The fall of 2018 brought extreme rain and flooding – it is the rainy season, insofar as that exists, but the amount of precipitation was unexpected. Come April this year, the Saudi desert found itself coated in more snow, hailstones and slammed by more floods too. Extreme heat may not be the only danger the hajj pilgrims face in the future.