The southeastern Mediterranean region is increasingly affected by severe desert dust storms. For several weeks, the whole of Cyprus has been suffering from successive waves of dust, coming mainly from the Sahara desert. Is this phenomenon parodic or will it be our new normal? To what extent is dust affected by the so-called climate crisis? Is there a way to reverse the situation or will nature adapt us "forcibly" in the new reality?
At a general level, research has shown that dust storms in our region consist of extremely high levels of coarse particles with an aerodynamic diameter between 2.5 mm and 10 mm, as well as increases in fine particles with an aerodynamic diameter < 2.5 mm. Cyprus, Crete and Israel are at the center of this region and experience events originating from both the Sahara Desert and the Arabian Peninsula. With decreasing rainfall and promoting desertification in the region due to ongoing climate change, these countries are expected to experience a further increase in the frequency and severity of events in the future.
Effects on health from WHO research
According to a related World Health Organization survey in 2021, evidence from toxicological and epidemiological studies has shown the negative effect of desert dust on cardiorespiratory health. More specifically, data generated from rodent and cell line tests have highlighted the ability of naturally occurring particles to inhibit immunoglobulin-mediated suppression of inflammation while enhancing pro-inflammatory cytokines.
Through systemic circulation, smaller particles and toxic substances in desert dust can be transported to all tissues, and previous studies have reported increased endothelial dysfunction, increased heart rate and mean blood pressure, and decreased cardiac contractility. These findings are consistent with epidemiological studies by’ worldwide, which reported significant associations with both respiratory (asthma, pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, allergic rhinitis, coccidioidomycosis) and cardiovascular (stroke, arrhythmia, ischemic heart disease, cerebrovascular disease). Preliminary research evidence also supports the association of desert dust with reproductive, neurological and dermatological health effects.
In previous years, studies from the region have reported associations during dust with increased hospital admissions for asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and increased mortality .
Of greater concern is the fact that general risk perception in relation to dust storms and associated health problems in these countries, including Cyprus, is limited. In essence, there is no data either on the current knowledge and relevant practices of the regulatory authorities or on the knowledge and perceptions of the involved social actors in the region regarding the effects on citizens' health.
Particular emphasis will be should be given to identifying and prioritizing problems that could and should be solved, especially in situations where there is no single agency or individual fully responsible.
Our region's climate and how it is beginning to change
The Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean region includes a variety of climate zones ranging from deserts and semi-arid zones in the south to subtropical and temperate climates. With hot, dry summers, occasional droughts, and mild, relatively wet winters, the region's climate is mostly temperate. Particularly over the past four decades, the region has experienced accelerated warming, nearly twice as fast as the global rate and faster than Europe, North America and other regions. At the same time, changes in the hydrologic cycle and rainfall patterns have been observed, with parts of the region exposed to droughts unprecedented in the organic record.
What factors are driving climate change in the region?< /p>
One of the most important influencing factors is the increase in greenhouse gases, which are responsible for most of the observed warming. Carbon dioxide and methane are emitted from the intensive exploitation and use of fossil fuels. Fossil energy consumption is increasing rapidly in the region, also for fresh water supply and for cooling in summer. Consequently, the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean region becomes a dominant emitter of greenhouse gases, as emission rates exceed those of India and the European Union. Reduced aerosol pollution due to clean air policies in Europe has also contributed to regional warming of the Mediterranean region. There is also a strong land–atmosphere coupling in the wetter part of the region. When soil moisture is depleted, sensible heating of the lower atmosphere increases, which is most evident in the hot and dry season. In addition, changes in land uses, mainly urbanization and the abandonment of agricultural land, affect local climates.
Can recent extreme weather events be attributed to climate change?
Extreme weather events are difficult to attribute accurately. However, some statistics from extensive analysis of survey data are clear. For example, there is a strong belief that summer temperatures in the region have risen faster than’ than in winter, and heat waves have become more frequent and intense due to anthropogenic influence. Similarly, parts of the region have been exposed to extreme droughts outside the range of natural climate variability. On the other hand, extreme rainfall and flooding usually occur in limited areas and periods of time. Therefore, deriving trends is challenging. There is evidence that climate change is contributing to less frequent but more intense rainfall. However, attributing this to anthropogenic activity is not straightforward.
Social impacts of changing climate conditions?
Almost all socio-economic sectors and ecosystem services are challenged by rapid climate change combined with other environmental factors. Human health and well-being are directly affected, mainly through heat stress and air pollution. Agriculture and aquaculture, therefore food security, water availability, fire risk, growing energy needs and tourism in the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean countries are huge challenges that should be addressed. Underprivileged communities in urban, rural and coastal areas are most affected. Transformative changes towards greater climate resilience will widen the window of opportunity for societies and ecosystems to adapt to climate change. The primary way forward is to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Published in Today (11/6/23)