When Muslims make the hajj pilgrimage, it’s a pillar of their faith and for many a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Yet for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia that means caring for millions of guests and the job isn’t going to get any easier on a warming planet.
The 2019 rituals just ended, with the Saudi government noting that nearly 650,000 people received medical care at hospitals and health centers near the holy sites. The Ministry of Health said the total included hundreds of surgeries, renal dialysis care and other sophisticated health services, but it also includes thousands of people overcome by heat in temperatures that already reach 50 degrees Celsius. That’s 122 degrees Fahrenheit.
At the same time, a new paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters warns that heat stress is projected to exceed extreme levels for pilgrims making the trip to Mecca in the future, and that will often be true across the next century even with some climate mitigation measures.
The authors, led by Elfatih Eltahir at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, note that the risk is even greater when the hajj – based on a lunar cycle – occurs in what are summer months in Saudi Arabia.
The Middle East has already seen significant temperature rises and it’s the humidity that comes into play as well. Yet it is a combination of factors beyond the potentially soaring “wet bulb” temperatures that is expected to put more people at risk in the future.
“The followers of Islam represent nearly one quarter of the world’s human population, and most of them aspire to perform hajj as an important part of their faith, with their desire to participate becoming more urgent as their age advances,” the authors note. “As a result, among the two to three million pilgrims participating in hajj every year for 2 to 3 weeks, a disproportionate fraction is elderly coming from Muslim communities around the world.”
As they participate in hajj rituals, they spend between 20 and 30 hours outdoors across five days. There are hours of outdoor prayer at the main mosque. There is the daylong visit to Mount Arafat. There is the Stoning of the Devil ritual in Mina, which spreads across three days. Some participants find the hajj rituals to be a daunting physical challenge, and the massive crowds in close quarters add to the heat.
Saudi officials know they’re dealing with extreme conditions when hajj falls anywhere from August to October, which will happen again in 2020 and then recur for nearly 20 years beginning in 2045. They’re making changes, such as applying a special coating to asphalt to reduce the heat gain, and this year had some 30,000 medical personnel on hand along with a new robotic telemedicine system to support them.
Still, the study authors say that in a business-as-usual mitigation scenario (RCP 8.5) the heat will exceed the extreme danger threshold in 42 percent of the years between 2079 and 2086, and 19 percent of the time in the RCP 4.5 scenario. In the meantime, the heat continues to rise and some risk is already here. It will be next year too.