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The Mediterranean region under climate change

Jean-Paul Moatti
Stéphane Thiébault

Part 1. Mechanisms, observed trends, projections

Sub-chapter 1.2.3. The Mediterranean Sea in the future climate projections

Samuel Somot, Gabriel Jorda, Ali Harzallah et Sofia Darmaraki

Texte intégral


1As a semi-enclosed and highly evaporative basin, the Mediterranean Sea has a specific thermohaline circulation characterized by deep convection in certain zones (Gulf of Lion, the Adriatic, Levantine and Aegean Seas). The contrast between the fresher (hence lighter) waters west of the Strait of Gibraltar compared to the saltier (hence heavier) Mediterranean waters east of it, is the principal forcing of the outflowing water vein and the compensating inflow of light Atlantic waters floating as a surface layer. The entire thermohaline circulation has a time scale of 75 to 100 years. How the circulation of the Mediterranean Sea will evolve under a changed climate is a major issue. Other key questions concern changes in the surface characteristics: sea surface temperature and salinity (SST, SSS), surface currents, sea level and waves. An overview of the projected future state of the Mediterranean Sea and associated uncertainties are presented in the following.

Models and methods

2The assessment of the effects of climate change on the Mediterranean Sea over the 1950-2100 period and under several socio-economic scenarios is based on different types of model projections from (i) general circulation models (GCM) used in the coordinated Coupled Model Intercomparison Projects (CMIP), (ii) higher resolution regional climate models (RCM) dedicated to the study of the Mediterranean region and/or Mediterranean Sea. RCMs including (1) atmosphere-only regional climate models (ARCM) from international coordinated programs (CORDEX) and European projects (e. g. PRUDENCE, ENSEMBLES) are used to assess changes in the atmosphere above the sea; (2) forced regional ocean models are used to assess impacts on the sea itself; and (3) fully coupled atmosphere-ocean regional climate models (AORCM), also called regional climate system models (RCSM), take into account the high resolution and high frequency coupling between the various components of the regional climate system. The use of RCSM for future projections started quite recently (Somot et al. 2008, Carillo et al. 2012) before being coordinated in the European project CIRCE (Dubois et al. 2012; Gualdi et al. 2013) and currently in the Med-CORDEX initiative (Ruti et al. 2016, see Box 1). CMIP5-based and CORDEX-based analyses are still ongoing and more results are expected in the coming years.

3The various modeling approaches used up to now should be considered as complementary as they all have their advantages and drawbacks and none has been demonstrated to be better than the others in assessing the effect of climate change on the Mediterranean Sea.

Box 1
The aim of the Coordinated Regional Downscaling Experiment (CORDEX), of the World Climate Research Program (WCRP), is to provide a coordinated framework to evaluate and improve regional climate modelling and to produce fine scale climate projections for identified regions worldwide.
The specific climate, topographical and anthropogenic factors that characterize the Mediterranean region make it a good candidate for regional climate modelling and the region was indeed chosen as a CORDEX sub-domain leading to the Med-CORDEX initiative ( endorsed by Med-CLIVAR and HyMeX. The Med-CORDEX initiative is a voluntary-based approach and was proposed by the Mediterranean climate research community as a continuation of previous initiatives. It takes advantage of new very high resolution regional climate models (RCMs, up to 10 km) and of new fully coupled regional climate system models (RCSMs), coupling the various components of the regional climate. Med-CORDEX is a unique framework in which the research community will make use of these new modelling tools to increase the reliability of past and future regional climate information and to better understand the processes responsible for the Mediterranean climate variability and trends.

4It is worth mentioning here that empirical downscaling approaches, very common over land, are only rarely used over the sea (Maciàs et al. 2013) probably due to the lack of in-situ data to train the statistical methods.

Future evolution of the Mediterranean Sea forcings

5As mentioned in the previous sub-chapter, there is a wide consensus that the future Mediterranean climate will be characterized by drier and warmer conditions. In line with these changes, the components of the Mediterranean Sea surface freshwater budget, evaporation, precipitation, rivers and Black Sea freshwater inputs, will also change (Mariotti et al. 2008, 2015, Sanchez-Gomez et al. 2009, Elguindi et al. 2011, Dubois et al. 2012, Planton et al. 2012, Adloff et al. 2015). Between the end of the 20th century and the end of the 21st century, most studies predict a decrease in precipitation of between -5% and -15% over the basin, although some studies project a reduction of up to 28%. On the other hand, evaporation tends to increase, with some models projecting an increase of up to 18%. River runoff and Black Sea water net inflow are both projected to decrease respectively by down to -87% and -102%. The latter value implies that, according to some future projections, the Black Sea will become an evaporative basin and as a consequence, the net water flow through the Dardanelles Strait would reverse (from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea). Changes in the components of the water budget depend to a great extent on the socio-economic scenario chosen (Adloff et al. (2015): the higher the GHG emissions, the greater the response of the water flux. However, changes in the Mediterranean Sea water budget are not expected to emerge from natural variability before the middle of the 21st century. It is worth noting that the future change in the Nile River discharge is a challenging issue due to the considerable influence of the management of this river, which has not been correctly tackled up to now (see Somot et al. 2006 and Dubois et al. 2012 for a discussion of this issue).

6Future changes in the components of the Mediterranean Sea surface heat budget: shortwave and longwave radiation, latent and sensible heat fluxes, have been less frequently studied (Somot et al. 2006, 2008, Dubois et al. 2012, Gualdi et al. 2013, Adloff et al. 2015). These studies show that in all available climate projections, the surface heat loss from the Mediterranean will decrease. The projected change in surface heat change ranges from +25% to +118%, meaning some models predict that the Mediterranean Sea could even gain heat through the surface in the future. The changes in surface heat fluxes are tightly correlated with the GHG concentrations in the scenarios.

7Few studies have assessed changes in the speed and direction of the wind over the Mediterranean Sea (Somot et al. 2006, Dubois et al. 2012, A. Dell’Aquila CLIM-RUN project, unpublished). From these RCM-based studies, changes are not expected before the middle of the 21st century but a decrease in wind speed is projected for the end of the 21st century. The only sub-basin where an increase in wind speed is expected is the Aegean Sea (Somot et al. 2006).

8Concerning the heat and salt transport from the near-Atlantic Ocean into the Mediterranean Sea, the global temperature increase will certainly lead to an increase in the temperatures of the incoming waters through the Strait of Gibraltar. This, together with the change in the surface heat budget, would increase the heat content of the Mediterranean Sea. In addition, an increase in water lost through the sea surface would increase the net water transport at the Strait and probably increase salinization of the basin, since more salty water will enter the basin to compensate for the increase in the fresh water deficit. However, the expected change in salinity in the near Atlantic Ocean is very uncertain in GCMs (Marcos and Tsimplis 2008, Carillo et al. 2012). Some global models project an increase in salinity in the northeast, whereas other models suggest freshening. In the latter case, the waters entering the Mediterranean through the Strait of Gibraltar could be fresher and could at least partially compensate for the effects of increased water transport. The evolution of salinity forcing coming from the Atlantic Ocean is today probably one of the main uncertainties of future projections concerning the Mediterranean Sea.

Future evolution of sea circulation, temperature and salinity

Sea surface temperature and salinity

9In the climate change scenarios, GCMs and RCMs clearly predict warming of the Mediterranean Sea surface, with a significant, nearly homogenous increase of up to 1.5 °C–3.1 °C in the annual mean SST for the end of 21st century compared to the present (e. g. Somot et al. 2006, Adloff et al. 2015). The warming rate depends at the first order on both the time horizon and the greenhouse gas emission scenario (Shaltout et al. 2014, Adloff et al. 2015, Mariotti et al. 2015). However, warming will always remain below than that of the air due to ocean thermal inertia. Some studies indicate greater warming in summer compared to winter. Even if there is still no clear consensus on the spatial variability of the increase in SST, Adloff et al. (2015) identified the Balearic Islands, the northwest Ionian, the Aegean and Levantine Seas as the regions with maximum warming.

10The future evolution of sea surface salinity (SSS) is less certain as it depends on two competing and opposite forcings (see above). This leads to non-homogeneous, geographically and seasonally dependent projected changes for SSS. A progressively higher SSS is however generally projected with values ranging from 0.06 psu to 1 psu over the next 100 years. Changes in SSS often remain undetectable until the middle of the 21st century and more pronounced salinization is identified in the Aegean and the Adriatic, possibly driven by a marked decrease in Black Sea and Po river runoff (Planton et al 2012, Adloff et al. 2015, see Figure 1).

11Changes in SST and SSS have opposite effects on the density of the surface waters. Pessimistic scenarios project a decrease in surface density (due to the marked increase in temperature) whereas some optimistic scenarios project an increase in density (related to a moderate increase in temperature and sometimes major changes in SSS in the near Atlantic Ocean).

Figure 1
Spatial composite of the expected minimum and maximum changes in SSS at the end of the 21st century compared with the end of the 20th century based on a 6-member ensemble covering various sources of uncertainty (adapted from Adloff et al. 2015)

Deep layer characteristics

12The surface climate change signal is propagated efficiently towards the deeper layers through the Mediterranean thermohaline circulation and more particularly through deep convection and dense water formation processes. This leads to relatively strong signals in the deep layers of the Mediterranean Sea with a mean warming of about +0.4 °C in total heat content in the middle of the 21st century (Carillo et al. 2012) and between +0.9 °C and +2.5 °C at the end of the 21st century mostly depending on the socio-economic scenario concerned but also on the choice of the model and on the modeling strategy applied (Somot et al. 2006, Marcos and Tsimplis 2008, Adloff et al. 2015, Maciàs et al. 2016). For the total salt content of the seawater, no significant signal is projected for the middle of the 21st century (Carillo et al. 2012) while values ranging from +0.2 psu to +0.9 psu, (Somot et al. 2006, Adloff et al. 2015, Maciàs et al. 2016) are projected for the end of the 21st century mostly due to the uncertainty related to the changes in the near Atlantic characteristics, in river discharges, and in the strength of the thermohaline circulation under the current climate. This means the socio-economic scenario is not the main source of uncertainty in future changes in salinity.

Sea circulation

13Although sea surface circulation is difficult to assess from the published literature (only one study), it is projected to undergo some modifications with a northward shift of the eastward moving surface water veins in both the western and eastern basins. For example in Figure 1, the areas with a decrease in salinity in the Balearic area and in the northern Ionian Sea are signatures of these changes in surface circulation (Adloff et al. 2015).

14All published studies agree on a weakening of the open-sea deep convection, the winter deep water formation and the related branch of the thermohaline circulation for the western Mediterranean Sea (Thorpe and Bigg 2000, Somot et al. 2006, Adloff et al. 2015), which, in some studies, is projected to be very strong and to occur very early in the 21st century (Somot et al. 2006). The picture in the eastern Mediterranean Sea is more contrasted with weakening in some simulations (Somot et al. 2006) but enhanced convection and thermohaline circulation in others and even some situations where the Aegean Sea becomes the first source of Eastern Mediterranean Deep Water (EMDW) such as during the Eastern Mediterranean Transient (EMT) in the 1990s (Adloff et al. 2015). This EMT-like situation is attributed to stronger winds over this area and to a drastic reduction in the flow of freshwater from the Black Sea into the Aegean Sea. The results concerning future changes in the Mediterranean thermohaline circulation should to be interpreted with caution as the models still have difficulty representing the current climate thermohaline circulation.

Water transport through the Strait of Gibraltar and Mediterranean outflow water

15Changes in the Mediterranean thermohaline circulation are intimately connected to the exchange of water and heat with the Atlantic Ocean through the Strait of Gibraltar. Adloff et al. (2015), project an increase of 0.02 Sv (relative to the actual value, 0.05 Sv) in the net water flux at the Strait of Gibraltar to compensate for the increase in net water loss from the sea surface. The net heat and salt transport are projected to increase by +2 Wm-2 and +11105 kg.s-1, respectively. The Atlantic Ocean is therefore projected to increase its supply of mass, salt, and heat to the Mediterranean Sea. Concerning the two-way exchange, a decrease in outflow (~-0.02 Sv) and a slight change in inflow (an increase of less than +0.01) are projected. These changes reflect changes in the hydrographic characteristics of the Mediterranean Sea but also probably in those of the eastern Atlantic Ocean. However the projected changes vary among models, with some models showing a reduction in the net heat gain and in the salt loss at the Strait of Gibraltar (Somot et al. 2006). The model simulations underline the complexity of the expected changes in water transport through the Strait of Gibraltar as they are the result of competing changes in temperature and salinity.

Mean sea level, storm surge and wind waves

Mean sea level

16Modeling mean sea level variability in the Mediterranean Sea is not straightforward. On one hand, GCMs do not have enough spatial resolution to reproduce the main mechanisms that control regional dynamics. For instance, the redistribution of heat inside the basin is strongly biased if the resolution is too coarse. This has a major impact on the reliability of temperature projections in the Mediterranean, and consequently on thermal expansion. On the other hand, at low frequencies, the variability of Mediterranean sea level is strongly influenced by changes in the nearby Atlantic, which are usually not included in regional climate models (RCMs) thus making it impossible for them to estimate long term trends of total sea level.

17Up to now, studies on the projections of sea level in the Mediterranean have focused on one of the components of sea level variability, the steric component (i.e. linked to changes in the density of the water column). This is only a part of the story as long as the projected sea level changes in the nearby Atlantic (i.e. either due to land ice melting or to changes in the circulation) are not taken into account. Moreover, Jordà and Gomis (2013) showed that ignoring changes in the amount of salt and using only the steric component to characterize the total sea level can lead to false conclusions in the Mediterranean. In particular, the steric component is equal to total sea level only in those cases where the mass in the water column is preserved. However, major changes in salt content are expected in the Mediterranean Sea that would not only increase the density of the water column but also change the mass. In other words, an increase in salinity in the basin would not imply a contraction of the water column, even if the steric component were negative. Therefore, projections based only on the steric component should be interpreted with caution.

18Using the simulated evolution of the steric component in the Mediterranean, Carillo et al. (2012) found a thermal expansion of about 5 cm in 2050 under the A1b scenario. It can also be concluded from their study that differences in the temperature of the waters flowing into the Mediterranean from the Atlantic will have little effect on the thermal evolution of the basin. Gualdi et al., (2013) found an increase in the steric component of about 15 cm in 2050 under the A1b scenario, although it should be noted that this is not completely representative of total sea level as the salinity effects were not filtered out. Adloff et al. (2015) projected a basin average thermal expansion ranging from +34 to +49 cm at the end of the 21st century under scenario A2. These authors found that the discrepancies are mainly due to the conditions prescribed for the Atlantic forcing, thus somewhat in disagreement with Carillo et al. (2012), who found no significant sensitivity to Atlantic forcing.

19In addition to the local thermal expansion, other components will play a role in future changes in sea level in the Mediterranean. In particular, melting of terrestrial ice due to global warming will be converted into a quasi-homogeneous global signal. This could mean an additional rise of between 10 and 60 cm in the level of the Mediterranean Sea (Spada et al. 2013). Changes in the northeast Atlantic circulation will also represent an additional 10-30 cm (Bouttes et al. 2012). In summary, the projected rise in the average sea level of the Mediterranean basin is estimated to be between 40 cm and 110 cm at the end of the 21st century with respect to the present climate. The range reflects the uncertainties linked to the GHG emissions scenario and to uncertainties in the modelling system. Finally, it is worth mentioning that changes in circulation within the Mediterranean can also sustain local changes that differ from the basin average Figure 1. These changes can be up to ± 10 cm (Figure 2) although different models differ in the patterns of change and there are no dedicated studies addressing the robustness of these regional patterns.

Storm surge

20Concerning the extreme sea level events, studies show that projections of extreme sea level events in the Mediterranean are very sensitive to the choice of atmospheric forcing. Marcos et al. (2011) point to a reduction in the average number of positive surges, whereas negative surges will increase throughout the 21st century. Conte and Lionello (2013) found an overall decrease of ~-5% in the magnitude in positive surges with changes up to ~-10% in some locations along the Mediterranean coasts. However, these authors reported marked differences among simulations, and that the results were not spatially coherent.

Figure 2
Projection of sea level change for the period 2080-2100 with respect to the period 1980-2000. The result is the combination of outputs of an ensemble of regional climate models combined with the CMIP5 projections for the Atlantic changes all run under moderate GHG emission scenarios (A1b and RCP6.0).

Wind waves

21Future changes in waves will be determined by future changes in the wind field over the Mediterranean Sea. Lionello et al. (2008) ran a regional wave model of the whole Mediterranean Sea under scenarios A2 and B2. These authors found that the mean significant wave height field over a large fraction of the Mediterranean Sea would be lower all year round at the end of the 21st century with a greater reduction (about -20 cm) in winter under scenario A2. The changes are similar, though smaller and less significant, under the B2 scenario, except during winter in the north-western Mediterranean Sea, where the mean significant wave height is projected to be higher than at present. Concerning extreme events, these authors also found smaller values in future scenarios than in the present climate. They also showed that, in general, changes in significant wave height, wind speed and atmospheric circulation were consistent.

22Based on statistical downscaling, Pérez et al. (2016) also found a decrease in significant wave height of -5 cm under scenario RCP8.5, of -3 cm under scenario RCP4.5, and no change under scenario RCP 2.6. These results are in agreement with the above mentioned work and point to a larger decrease in wave height under higher emission scenarios.


23Several robust and significant conclusions can be drawn such as general warming and an increase in the salinity of Mediterranean waters, as well as the sea level rise due to the propagation of the global signal. However the changes in temperature and salinity have opposite and competing effects on the change in water density and hence on changes in vertical stratification, in the Mediterranean thermohaline circulation, and in the total steric sea level. Whereas some scenarios project a weakening of the thermohaline circulation especially in the western Mediterranean basin, others predict that the Mediterranean Sea could enter an EMT-like state. As a consequence, future changes in water and heat exchanges at the Strait of Gibraltar, being part of the thermohaline circulation, are less certain but will very likely be an increasing source of heat and salt for the deep layers of the North Atlantic Ocean during the course of the 21st century. Similarly, the uncertainty on the expected sea level rise is as high as that for oceans worldwide.

24Changes related to the water cycle are not expected to emerge from the natural variability before the middle of the 21st century, whereas changes related to the heat cycle are already being observed. Concerning the end of the 21st century, as expected, the choice of the socio-economic scenario is often the most important source of uncertainty, but future changes in conditions in the Near Atlantic Ocean may outweigh salinity related changes including the Mediterranean thermohaline circulation. Future changes in river discharges could be the main source of uncertainty in some key sub-basins.



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Table des illustrations

Légende Figure 1Spatial composite of the expected minimum and maximum changes in SSS at the end of the 21st century compared with the end of the 20th century based on a 6-member ensemble covering various sources of uncertainty (adapted from Adloff et al. 2015)
Fichier image/jpeg, 271k
Légende Figure 2Projection of sea level change for the period 2080-2100 with respect to the period 1980-2000. The result is the combination of outputs of an ensemble of regional climate models combined with the CMIP5 projections for the Atlantic changes all run under moderate GHG emission scenarios (A1b and RCP6.0).
Fichier image/jpeg, 132k


Climatologist, Centre National de Recherches Météorologiques, Météo-France and CNRS, France

Oceanographer, Institut Mediterrani d’Estudis Avançats (IMEDEA), Universitat de les Illes Balears, Spain

Ocean modeller, Institut National des Sciences et Technologies de la Mer (INSTM), Tunisia

PhD student, Centre National de Recherches Météorologiques, Météo-France and CNRS, France

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