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The Mediterranean region under climate change

Jean-Paul Moatti
Stéphane Thiébault

Part 1. Mechanisms, observed trends, projections

Sub-chapter 1.4.7. Conclusion and recommendations

Texte intégral

1Ambient air is an important common resource. Its quality affects human and ecosystems health, and its composition impacts the regional climate. Climatological surveys show that atmospheric pollution in the form of both gaseous and particulate compounds is generally higher over the Mediterranean basin than over most European continental regions, especially during the long dry season, due to (i) the confluence of long range transported continental air masses that add to local sources of air pollution (e.g. heavy ship traffic), (ii) the scarce precipitation scavenging, (iii) intense photochemistry, and (iv) local circulations and poor ventilation rates that recycle polluted air layers in the western basin, or accumulate pollution in the eastern basin. Future levels of atmospheric trace compounds will be significantly impacted by the changes in climate conditions expected in the Mediterranean region, especially the significant increase in temperature and decrease in precipitation frequency. This will have, in turn, impacts on the Mediterranean climate and human health.

2Atmospheric composition and air quality depend on natural and anthropogenic mechanisms, some of which are directly affected by climate change. This is the case of emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by vegetation, which depend on the temperature, photosynthetically active radiation and availability of water. The most recent observations made in the framework of ChArMEx show that climate change will likely lead to an increase in these emissions, which play a crucial role in the chemical formation of ozone and fine organic particles. But the impact of climate change on emissions is not always straightforward. This is the case of forest fire emissions that also play a role in ozone and particulate pollution. One could expect that a dryer climate would increase fire frequency and consequently particulate air pollution. Nevertheless, emissions by fires depend not only on their frequency, but also on their duration, intensity and extent. There is also no consensus on the impact of climate change on dust emissions. Although climate change will affect dust emissions, which depend on precipitation, land cover and surface wind, it is still uncertain whether these emissions will increase or decrease in the future, especially because dust emissions also depend on agriculture pressure and field preparation techniques. Neither is the effect of climate change on marine emissions of sea salt and VOCs (as marine VOCs depend both on the biological activity and environmental parameters) yet clear. Rather than the usually suspected sulfur compounds, iodine-containing compounds, whose emission is linked to seawater microorganisms, appear to be at the origin of new particle formation over the northwestern Mediterranean. Despite the fact anthropogenic emissions are also important contributors to the composition of the air, their quantification are still associated with considerable uncertainty. Finally, recent studies in large urban centers in the eastern Mediterranean basin indicate that large scale anthropogenic emission inventories are seriously underestimated. What is more, all these inventories agree on a marked increase in anthropogenic emissions of major pollutants in the Middle East area (MEA). Higher levels of primary emitted pollutants combined with higher temperature in the future will lead to more frequent intense pollution events that will have major health impacts in urban areas.

3The level of pollution of Mediterranean air also depends on long range and intercontinental transport. Recent ChArMEx field campaigns identified air masses from North America and tropical Africa in the western Mediterranean and from South East Asia in the eastern Mediterranean. It was shown that imported Asian pollution builds up in the eastern Mediterranean, leading to a sharp west-to-east increasing gradient in aerosols and trace gases such as ozone and methane. These intercontinental pathways come into play under specific meteorological configurations that will be impacted by climate change. However, it is not yet known if climate change will favor intercontinental transport, or not.

4The Mediterranean surface water ecosystem largely depends on atmospheric inputs for most of its crucial nutrients (N and P), especially in summer when thermal stratification prevents the upwelling of nutrients from deeper waters. Anthropogenic nitrogen and airborne dust deposition to nutrient depleted surface seawater could favor phytoplankton development and this fertilization effect may stimulate the transfer of atmospheric CO2 to sediments, reducing atmospheric CO2 and climate change. Due to air quality mitigation measures, it is also predicted than anthropogenic N fluxes will decrease in the coming years, limiting the atmospheric input of nutrients and possibly related biological activity. In addition, long term series of deposition measurements suggest that the atmospheric input of dust has decreased by one order of magnitude in the last decade compared to previous decades. The reasons are not well understood, satellite observations show that Saharan dust transport events are still common. Recent in situ studies in the northwestern Mediterranean showed that Saharan dust deposition by rain stimulates heterotrophic bacteria growth, which reemits CO2. Thus, dust deposition has two opposite effects on the atmospheric CO2 that need to be further studied in order to estimate the net effect at large scales.

5One very important impact of atmospheric chemistry on the regional climate is the impact of aerosols on the water cycle, which is often neglected in climate models. The Mediterranean region is a special place where most of the moisture that fuels precipitation comes from evaporation from the Mediterranean basin. One direct effect of aerosols is reducing the solar energy delivered to the surface by scattering it back to space or absorbing it within turbid layers containing desert dust or carbonaceous aerosols. This dimming effect decreases surface temperature and consequently evaporation from the sea surface. Atmospheric models with externally forced sea surface temperature do not properly account for this effect, which can be simulated by atmosphere-ocean coupled models. A recent study performed in the framework of ChArMEx and HyMEX calculated that this radiative effect reduces the regional precipitation by 10%, which is a major issue in a region where water is already scarce. But aerosols can further reduce precipitation by indirect effects through aerosol-cloud interactions. Since water vapor condenses around aerosol particles to form the cloud droplets, an excess of aerosols leads to smaller cloud droplets that do not get big enough to fall. Another important and even more complex issue is the formation of ice crystals that trigger the precipitation cycle, which critically depends on the icing properties of aerosol particles. These properties are highly contrasted in different types of particles, some bacteria and soil dust being the most efficient. Aerosol-cloud interactions remain a major source of uncertainty in climate models and climate change projections, and should thus be an important field of study in the near future in the Mediterranean due to its possible impact on the scarcity of water resources.

6The most dramatic effect of bad air quality is on human health. People poison themselves by breathing polluted ambient air, the result being chronic diseases or even premature death. Most inhabitants of the Mediterranean region, especially on the southern and eastern sides of the basin, are more or less regularly exposed to high loads (well above WHO air quality recommendations) in the form of soil dust particles, smoke emitted by forest fires, ozone, and anthropogenic emissions from almost unregulated large urban centers. All around the basin, the rare available epidemiological studies all show an excess of premature deaths associated with an increase in particulate pollution. Reducing pollution levels would reduce the death toll and hospital admissions, and prevention policies should be established with a view to reducing effects on health.

7Recent evidence demonstrated the link between climate change and air pollution both regarding adaptation and mitigation strategies. There are important possible win-win strategies to be developed in the years to come to improve air quality while engaging in a process aimed at a low carbon economy. Such benefits have been pointed out in several European studies, but the specific situation of Mediterranean countries deserves more specific investigations.

8To conclude, it is clear that both-way interactions between atmospheric chemistry and climate are not yet fully understood and quantified in the Mediterranean region. Robust predictions of the future living conditions in the Mediterranean require that such interactions are included in regional models. Positive feedback is expected between climate change and air pollution, but quantification of natural and anthropogenic emissions, process studies, and the development of chemistry-transport models are still necessary for a good assessment of future regional atmospheric environmental and climate conditions. In particular, air pollution health risk assessment is still lacking at the regional scale and requires a major research effort on the southern and eastern side of the basin where the dose-response functions established in well-developed countries can be questioned.


9This chapter was contributed by the Chemistry-Aerosol Mediterranean Experiment (ChArMEx;, a multilateral federative project of the multidisciplinary research program MISTRALS (Mediterranean Integrated Studies at Regional and Local Scales; The authors are grateful to the many agencies and institutes that supported the research described here.



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