Climate change is making UAE hotter – a trend that will continue

Extreme humid heat events will become more common in coastal urban centres like Abu Dhabi and Dubai

Residents and Heat in Sweihan-AD  Ice cream melts quickly in the small town of Sweihan, where temperatures temperatures have risen to -45¡C Abu Dhabi on June 9, 2021.
Reporter: Haneen Dajani News
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Average temperatures in the UAE are almost 1.5°C higher than they were 60 years ago – and projections show the mercury could rise by another 2.4°C in the next 40 years.

An analysis of World Bank data shows the Emirates and the Gulf are highly susceptible to climate change, with summer temperatures already some of the highest on the planet.

The figures show an average rise of 0.75°C since 1990 alone.

Although the figures may sound negligible, such an increase can have a dramatic impact on weather patterns, crop growth and the wider environment.

A separate analysis of rainfall shows annual precipitation has been erratic over the past half century.

The World bank figures echo previous studies that predict the Emirates will see hotter, more humid summers and more unpredictable rainfall in winter. They also explain the heat Emiratis have been suffering through.

Super and ultra-extreme heatwaves

Earlier this month, the town of Sweihan near Al Ain made headlines when it was the hottest place in the world for a day, with an official temperature of 51.8°C.

Residents said the heat felt like an 'inferno' and air conditioning units struggled to cool their homes.

The country began the normally dry summer with a five week blast of near-daily humidity that reached 90 per cent at times.

Yet compared to heatwaves of the future, it has almost been mild.

"The most extreme events that we have experienced so far will become the regular," warns Dr George Zittis, an associate research scientist at the Climate and Atmosphere Research Centre of the Cyprus Institute.

His recent research, the first of its kind focused explicitly on the Middle East and involving scientists from the region, projects that by mid-century, 'super and ultra-extreme heatwaves', where temperatures above 56°C could last for weeks on end, will become increasingly common. By the end of the century they could happen annually should business-as-usual emissions continue.

"The Middle East is considered a climate change hotspot, because we expect the temperature to increase more during the summer season...we expect an expansion of the summer season.

"We are talking about events we have never seen in the region," he says.

Extreme humid heat events

In addition to severe heatwaves, it is also getting more humid. According to research led by Dr Julian Bolleter of the University of Western Australia in Perth on 'wet-bulb' temperature, coastal urban areas like Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman and Sharjah will see the greatest impacts, despite being less hot than inland cities such as Al Ain and Al Dhaid.

“While these [inland] areas are slightly hotter in summer, the air is considerably drier, and thus wet-bulb temperatures reached will not be as extreme,” according to the paper.

Wet-bulb temperature (TW) is a measurement of air temperature and humidity, and higher readings mean more severe, unbearable conditions. Any wet-bulb temperature exceeding 35°C is considered extreme, a phenomenon that has only been recorded 14 times on land.

These typically rare humid heat events have become less so since 1979, and are forecast to become even more frequent in future. They are most prevalent in the Gulf region.

Unfortunately, staying inside all day is not a solution.

“Cities need people outside doing things,” said Bolleter.

“You cannot air condition the entire city. There’s a big concern if there was a big power failure.”

Instead, he calls for policymakers to consider proactive planning of urban centres away from coastal areas.

“While these areas are slightly hotter in summer, the air is considerably drier, and thus wet bulb temperatures will not be as extreme.”

Sustainable development in the desert

Just as the UAE has sought to find global solutions to climate change, evidenced in its bid to host Cop28 and push for alternative energy, it is also preparing for local effects such as increasing temperatures and sea-level rise.

The Environmental Agency Abu Dhabi told The National that, in cooperation with other government agencies, it had considered what measures might be needed.

“As the process of diversification accelerates, and the dependence on oil and gas diminishes, the likelihood of concentrating more infrastructure and development further inland could increase,” it said.

It added that a process to manage sustainable development in coastal areas was being developed.