Heatwaves Ease for Second Pandemic-Era Hajj Pilgrimage

Heatwaves in one of the world’s hottest countries eased slightly as Hajj pilgrims make the arduous journey to Mecca this week. 

Saudi Arabia forecasts temperatures will rise to as high as 44 degrees Celsius (111 Fahrenheit) in Mecca, the holiest city for Muslims that draws the faithful from around the world. The city’s hot desert climate, with virtually no rainfall in the summer, is expected to get even more extreme in the coming years as the planet warms. The highest temperature recorded in Hajj in the past 5 years was 50ºC in 2018 on Arafat day, the most important day of Hajj, according to the country’s Center of Meteorology.

Ghalia Almutairi, a 42-year-old housewife from Riyadh who was selected to perform Hajj this year, said the weather isn’t “too bad” for her, as Riyadh’s temperatures are usually the same or higher during the summer. “I'm very glad I got selected this year as I can definitely handle this,” she said. “I was worried if I perform it after a few years it'll get warmer."

Attendance of the Hajj pilgrimage, which is obligatory for all able-bodied adult Muslims once in their lifetime if they can afford it, will be restricted again this year to limit the risk of coronavirus contagion. Saudi Arabia will only allow access to the holy sites to 60,000 nationals and residents who have been vaccinated and don't suffer chronic diseases, the country's press agency reported.

The extreme heat will remain a risk whenever the pilgrimage returns in full force. Scientists say climate change means there’s an increasing risk of heat and humidity worsening in the areas of Saudi Arabia where the Hajj takes place, to the point where people could face extreme danger to their health if they participate, especially when the Hajj coincides with the hottest summer months. 

In May, a heatwave across the Arabian peninsula brought temperatures close to 50ºC in Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Iraq and Southern Iran. While these countries are used to high temperatures during peak summer months, that level of heat is unusual before the official start of the summer on June 1.

The Middle East and North Africa regions will experience unprecedented super- and ultra-extreme heatwave conditions during the second half of this century, according to a scientific paper published in Nature in March. These conditions involve temperatures of 56ºC or higher lasting for several weeks. About half of the region’s inhabitants, around 600 million people, could be exposed to such conditions by the end of the century.

The extreme heat is also adding more planet-warming emissions to the atmosphere. There’s “excessive consumption of electricity for air conditioning,” said Yousef Alshammari, chief executive officer of London-based energy consultancy CMarkits. “The use of renewable energy, particularly solar energy, will be essential.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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