CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The Hajj is an annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Considered one of the five pillars of the Islamic religion, all Muslims are expected to journey to Mecca at least once in their lives. The 2019 Hajj just recently ended, and over two million Muslims made the journey, enduring especially humid weather thanks to a particularly hot summer this year. While some may just write this summer off as an anomaly, new research conducted at MIT predicts that summer temperatures around Mecca as soon as next year will be hot enough to endanger the health of visiting Muslim pilgrims.
Islam follows a cyclical lunar calendar, so the pilgrimage doesn’t always take place during the summer months. However, it does occur during the summer for five to seven years at a time.
According to researchers, summer temperatures around Mecca and in Saudi Arabia next year could surpass the United States National Weather Service’s extreme danger heat-stress threshold, which would be a wet-bulb temperature of 84.3 degrees Fahrenheit. Wet-bulb temperature is a measurement that combines normal temperature readings with the amount of moisture present in the air.
Basically, any wet-bulb reading above 84.3 degrees F means that the human body can no longer cool itself via sweat, because it is so hot that sweat doesn’t even evaporate properly. Pilgrims journeying to Mecca under these extreme temperatures would be at serious risk of suffering a heat stroke and even death.
The study’s authors hope that their findings help encourage policies that would make the trip safer for the millions of people who travel to Mecca each year.
“When the Hajj happens in summer, you can imagine with climate change and increasing heat-stress levels conditions could be unfavorable for outdoor activity,” comments Elfatih Eltahir, a co-author on the study and an environmental engineer at MIT, in a media release. “Hajj may be the largest religious tourism event. We are trying to bring in the perspective of what climate change could do to such large-scale outdoor activity.”
Researchers say that temperatures across the Middle East have already risen considerably due to climate change, and are only projected to keep getting hotter in the future. With this in mind, Eltahir and his team set out to determine how soon temperatures around Mecca would make completing the Hajj considerably harder and more dangerous for Muslim pilgrims. To do this, they analyzed historical climate models and data in order to formulate temperature predictions for the future.
After finishing their calculations, researchers concluded that pilgrims journeying to Mecca during the summer months will almost undoubtedly endure extreme and harmful hot temperatures over the coming years and decades — and it’s only going to get hotter and hotter.
For example, just next summer researchers predict the temperature around Mecca will exceed the extreme danger threshold 6% of the time. Between 2045 and 2053 the summer temperatures will exceed the threshold 20% of the time. Fast forward to 2079-2086 and the temperature will be extremely dangerous an incredible 42% of the summer.
However, the study also notes that if the global community works together to mitigate the effects of climate change over the next few decades, those projected percentages would drop considerably.
While these findings are troubling to say the least, researchers say their intention is not to scare anyone or discourage Muslims from making their holy journey, but to inform them and make sure they are prepared for the extreme temperatures.
“These results are not meant to spread any fears, but they are meant to inform policies about climate change, in relation to both mitigation and adaptation” Eltahir says. “There are ways people could adapt, including structural changes by providing larger facilities to help people perform Hajj as well as nonstructural changes by controlling the number of people who go.”
The study is published in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters.