Heat waves, droughts and heavy rain are ‘new weather normal’

Heat waves, droughts and heavy rain are ‘new weather normal’

Barçın Yinanç - barcin.yinanc@hdn.com.tr
Heat waves, droughts and heavy rain are ‘new weather normal’ Heat waves, droughts and heavy rainfall are the “new normal” in Istanbul, Professor Levent Kurnaz has told the Hürriyet Daily News, adding that the intense storms that hit the city twice last month were the result of climate change.  

“The eastern Mediterranean area is one of the hottest spots on the planet. Few places in the world will bear the brunt of this climate change as much as us,” said Kurnaz, the director of the Center for Climate Change and Policy Studies at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University.

Istanbul recently witnessed extremely heavy rain and flash flooding twice in one week. What happened? Are we facing something new?

It rained. That’s it. It rained very heavily. There is nothing magical about what happened; there are lots of reasons for it.

But was it normal?

Actually it has rained like this before. This is nothing that has not been seen before, though the intensity is much higher. In 2009 in Istanbul we got something like 180 kg of rain per square meter within six hours.

This time the first storm was about 80 kg per square meters in two hours and the last one was 35-40 kg per square meter in 20 minutes. Whenever we say it’s “supercell rain” people think it’s something special.

But this is actually something we know. It has rained like this before, but the intensity is getting higher and higher. 

Right before the storm the surface temperature of the Marmara Sea was about three degrees higher than normal. Therefore a mass of warm air moving through the Marmara Sea gathered all the moisture from the sea and dumped it right over Istanbul. That huge cell with lots of moisture from the Marmara Sea is called a “supercell.”  

But can we call what we witnessed “normal”?

From now on this is going to be the “new normal.” We have been witnessing this not just in Istanbul but all over Turkey too. The intensity of storms is getting higher and higher and the duration is getting shorter and shorter. We need to be prepared.

Let’s talk about the reasons. Is it just climate change? Isn’t there anything specific to Turkey?

It is climate change. This is not specific to Turkey. We are pumping more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, which heats up the atmosphere. All of that heat causes more water to evaporate, which means that when it rains it rains very heavily. Because there is so much heat in the atmosphere, it also means that the atmosphere is more capable of holding moisture, which means that we’ll have longer durations of drought.  

But when we talk about our region, I have to say we are living in a very dangerous zone. In particular, the East Mediterranean area is one of the hottest spots in the whole planet. Almost no other place will bear the brunt of this climate change as much as us. Turkey is located between the latitudes 36 and 42. Climate change means effectively the shifting of everything 60 degrees north, so Antalya will be at the level of Istanbul in the near future. The south of Turkey, meanwhile, will become like Arabia, warmer and drier. Whenever the rain comes it will be in heavy downpours.

Some say the construction density in Istanbul further exacerbates the effects of climate change.

The rain coming from the sky is not affected by the buildings. But the effect of all that rain on people is definitely a function of how many buildings we have. The flooding that came after the rain is the result of bad infrastructure. It is the Turkish way of life, and it is not suitable for the future. We have to wake up. The recent storms should be a wakeup call.

What else awaits us in the future?

In the summer we are going to have serious heatwaves. In Istanbul the temperatures are currently around 36 or 37 degrees. In the coming five to 10 years we will start seeing 40 degrees. And if temperatures don’t drop below 35 degrees for one week in Istanbul, that will be a major problem. All elderly people will be affected; we always assume that air conditioners will be ready, but not everybody can afford air conditioners. Plus, we cannot guarantee that there will be enough electricity. That is true for everywhere in Turkey, not just Istanbul. 

Where is Turkey in terms of taking measures?

You have to find a balance between adaptation and mitigation, depending on where you live in the world. For example, Bangladesh has to adapt, it should not think of mitigation. But in Canada, mitigation should be a priority. In Turkey, we should always think about mitigation but we should also think more about how to adapt to the new future. In Turkey, all environmentalist groups are concentrating on mitigation. The solution is easy: We shouldn’t be putting any more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. 

Adaptation is a more convoluted problem. If you have to change the entire infrastructure of Istanbul, that will cost anywhere between $3 to 5 billion, and everyone will be complaining about all the work. No municipal government can spend $3 billion, having to face all the anger of voters at the next election. So adaptation is a bigger problem for us. Mitigation is simpler: Don’t burn any coal. 

But other countries will continue to burn coal.

In 1992 we promised the world that we would cut our emissions. Most other countries kept their word but Turkey has increased its emissions by 133 percent over the last 20 years. This basically kills your question, because we are doing nothing compared to all others in the OECD. All others are doing their part. 

But you’re talking about the OECD list. The government objects to being categorized within this list, saying it lags far behind other developed countries.

OK, let’s compare with China. Isn’t that a fair comparison? China has a much higher rate of growth, but at the moment it is decoupling its energy use from its growth. That’s what we need to do too: Our energy use should not be growing as much as our economic growth.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement seems to have encouraged the Turkish government. What is its current position?

Unfortunately that is true. But Turkey does not really care about Trump, rather it is asking: “If we sign the Paris Agreement will we be getting money from the green climate fund?”

How legitimate is Turkey’s demand and to what degree is it receiving a welcoming ear on that?

The year before Paris, all countries pledged how much they intend to cut from their emissions. Turkey said it would burn as much coal and gas as it wants until 2030, and if it grows at an average of 7 percent then it may drop 21 percent from its emissions. Compared to all other countries, that is a very weak commitment.
Perhaps we could have said: “We’ll put all our efforts into adaptation. To do that, this is what we will need and it will cost this much. We also have 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, and the Syrian war problem is also partly related to climate change. This problem will continue so we will remain one of the crossing points of refugees from our region.” Then our position could have been legitimate. But we did not say that. Instead we insisted only that we need to grow 7 percent.

How does this makes us look?

We are a laughing stock. Nobody listens to Turkey anymore in the climate change arena. We do not have a reasonable commitment. A reasonable commitment would entail a reasonable estimate on economic growth, something like 4-5 percent growth and a pledge to cut 20 percent of all newly planned coal plants until 2030. Also we should provide a list of projects for adaptation, such as improving the agriculture sector or water structure in Turkey. But on the contrary we are not giving any indication of what the money will be used for if we get it.

The government has just held a tender for a wind power project.

Their main priority is coal, natural gas and nuclear. Of course they are developing solar and wind energy, but not nearly as intensely as other projects.

Who is Levent Kurnaz?


Heat waves, droughts and heavy rain are ‘new weather normal’

Professor Levent Kurnaz was born in Istanbul. He received a Bachelor of Science in electrical and electronic engineering in 1988 and a Master of Science in electrical and electronic engineering and Bachelor of Science in physics in 1990 from Boğaziçi University. He received his Master of Science in physics in 1991 and his PhD in physics in 1994 from the University of Pittsburgh.

Between 1995 and 1997 Kurnaz worked as a research associate at the Department of Chemistry at Tulane University.

In 1997 he joined the Boğaziçi University Physics Department as an assistant professor, after which he became a professor of physics at the university. In 2014, he was appointed as director of Boğaziçi University’s Center for Climate Change and Policy Studies.

Kurnaz is also the author of one book and a number of scientific papers published in international journals.