Last week images of Venice inundated by seawater flooded the Internet. The city’s iconic Piazza San Marco became a lagoon where one could paddle rather than walk. The famous tile floors in San Marco Basilica were covered by nearly a meter of water, aging the historic mosaic by 20 years in one day. Clad in rubber boots, people waded the streets nearly knee-deep while restaurants served food to customers seated at tables with waves splashing underneath. The USA Today wrote that 70 percent of the city was consumed by the sea and The New York Times called it the worst flooding in a decade.
Experts say it’s only going to get worse. What we are seeing is only the tip of the iceberg. And floods aren’t the only threat to worry about.
The Mediterranean region, colloquially called the cradle of civilization, may not be able support much of that civilization within the next 50 years. For starters, it’s poised to suffer from the changing climate much worse than many other locales, according to a paper published by an international network of scientists who worked together to synthesize the predictions and risks for the region.
Future warming in the Mediterranean region will likely surpass global rates by 25 percent, with summer temperatures increasing at a pace 40 percent larger than the global mean, the paper notes. Precipitation will decrease but heavy rainfalls will intensify, with possibly destructive outcomes. Heat waves will get more severe. While the 2003 summer European heat wave was deemed as one of the worst on record, responsible for 22,000 to 35,000 human deaths, as well as killing thousands of birds and fish, the future will bring harsher and more frequent spikes. Droughts and heat waves will spark more wildfires. In warmer weather more disease-carrying pests will survive, spreading West Nile virus, Dengue, and chikungunya further north. During the hot summer of 2017, outbreaks of chikungunya happened in France and Italy and recently, dengue fever was reported in Croatia, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Portugal and Spain.
The rising seas will play a special role in this already bleak future. “Floods are expected to be particular damaging—due to the configuration of the coastlines,” says senior scientist Wolfgang Cramer at the Mediterranean Institute for Biodiversity and Ecology, who led the team that published the study. The Atlantic Ocean enters the Mediterranean Sea through the narrow Gibraltar Strait. As a result, the Mediterranean Sea has almost no tides, which means that coastline construction has historically been situated very close to the water—closer than in other coastal countries directly exposed to the daily ocean tides. When the sea rises, the homes and structures built near the water will submerge fast.
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Certain other parts of the world are also more vulnerable to climate change than the global average, including the U.S. National Parks, which may disappear entirely. But while many nationally protected areas are very scarcely populated, the Mediterranean is home to 480 million people and prone to political conflicts. Droughts, fires, excessive heat and lack of frost that certain cultivars need, can cause water and food shortages, leading to conflicts, according to Peter H. Gleick. By 2050, Egypt’s production of legumes might drop by 40 percent and southern Europe’s yields of tubers, such as potatoes, by 14 percent—the staples of the respective local diets. Ocean warming and acidification will likely affect fisheries, making over 20 percent of local species go extinct by 2050. Grape growers will be affected too as the changing climate will alter European viticultural zones.
Will tourists still pour into their beloved region for seafood, wine, and beautiful nature? It’s hard to tell. Even if viticulture disappears, agriculture suffers, and fish go extinct, the region would still retain most of its historical and cultural landmarks—but will they be pleasant to explore in the hot arid weather? “There’s a limit to what you can take and it’s not to be taken lightheartedly,” says Cramer circling back to the recent killing heat waves. “At some point you don’t want to be a tourist anymore. You just want to hide inside with an air conditioner.”