Climate change: Too hot for the Hajj?

Heat in Mecca and other Islamic pilgrimages could reach deadly values

The pilgrimage to Mecca is a must for devout Muslims, but climate change could make the conditions dangerous. © MIT
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Deadly pilgrimage? The holy places of Islam could soon become too hot for many pilgrim Muslims. Because when Hajj falls into the summer, life-threatening combinations of heat and humidity will prevail more and more in Mecca and the surrounding area, as researchers have discovered. By 2050, 20 percent of pilgrimage dates could exceed this threshold, and by 2080 even 40 percent, according to forecasts.

Once in a lifetime, Islam dictates to its followers a pilgrimage to the holy places. As part of this Hajj lasting several days, pilgrims will visit the Kaaba in Mecca, as well as other sites in the area. When this annual pilgrimage takes place, it depends on the lunar calendar, so the date moves forward by a few days each year. At present, the hajj is in summer and also from 2047 to 2052 and from 2079 to 2086 this pilgrimage will take place at the hottest time of the year.

Hajj pilgrims on Mount Arafat. © Omar Khatriwala / AL Jazeera, CC-by-sa 2.0

Heat hell Middle East

The problem is that Mecca and Co are located in Saudi Arabia and thus in a region that is already one of the world's hottest. "Temperatures have risen significantly since the 1970s, and the frequency of heat extremes has also increased, " reports Suchul Kang of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and his colleagues. If the hajj in the summer, there are already often health problems especially in older pilgrims.

But things get even worse: according to forecasts, parts of the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula could become almost uninhabitable in a global warming of just two degrees. With unchecked warming, even more life-threatening climatic conditions could occur more frequently by the end of the century. In these, the combination of heat and humidity reaches the so-called cooling limit temperature - a dead threshold, because the body can no longer cool by evaporation of perspiration.

Pilgrimage in danger?

But what does this mean for the Islamic pilgrimage Hajj? When will your participants and organizers expect an acute climatic risk and how often? Kang and his colleagues studied this using three climate models. To do so, they modeled the conditions in Mecca and the surrounding area under a scenario of moderate and unchecked climate change (RCP 4.5 and 8.5)

Then they determined how often the Hajj participants would be exposed to the cooling limit of 29.1 degrees, classified as "extremely dangerous". Under these conditions, the temperature is above 29 degrees and the humidity is at least 45 percent. "Up to now, this threshold has never been exceeded in summer pilgrimages, " Kang and his team report.

Threshold exceeded

But this will change: if climate change continues unchecked, this danger threshold could be exceeded by 2020 albeit with only six percent probability. In the period from 2045 to 2052, however, the risk already rises to 20 percent, in the period from 2079 to 2086 even 40 percent, as the researchers determined. But much earlier, the summer climate in Mecca and the surrounding area will reach values ​​that, although not potentially deadly, may be harmful to life for elderly people and weak pilgrims can.

"Much of the activity during the pilgrimage takes place outside, " says co-author Elfatih Eltahir of MIT. The pilgrims spend hours circling the Kaaba in Mecca or praying on the sacred Mount Arafat in the scorching sun. Combined with the strong pressure on these events, it could in future increasingly come to cases of circulatory collapse, but also to mass panic. Already in the Hajj years 1990 and 2015, there were hundreds of deaths due to such events.

What can you do?

"The more severe the weather conditions are, the more likely it is that the crowds will revert to such incidents, " says Eltahir. To prevent this, one must already develop appropriate strategies. In addition a sun protection could belong to the holy places and Abkhhlungsm glichkeiten. Another strategy might be that older Muslims plan their pilgrimage in the years when the Hajj dates are not midsummer.

If, however, a large part of the Islamic pilgrims follow this strategy, this could also have fatal consequences: "Already today, around two to three million pilgrims take part in Hajj every year, " the researchers explain. If these were to concentrate in just a few years, the crowds would be enormous and would overload the local infrastructure. "It may be necessary to limit Hajj to pilgrims who are proven to be in good health, " say Kang and his colleagues.

It seems clear: the conditions for the Islamic pilgrimage will become tougher. For the 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide, it could become much more difficult and uncomfortable to complete their compulsory pilgrimage. (Geophysical Review Letters, 2019; doi: 10.1029 / 2019GL083686)

Source: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)

- Nadja Podbregar