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The storied Mediterranean faces climate change

In the first of a four-part series, the Monitor examines the impact of man-made pressures on the region.

By Nicole ItanoCorrespondent / January 14, 2008

Crowded: Along the Mediterranean coast, the number of cities has doubled in recent decades. In addition, old cities like Athens are growing quickly. Forty percent of the coastline is now considered urban.

Melanie Stetson Freeman - staff

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ATHENS

From ancient Egypt to Rome, the fertile Mediterranean has sustained great empires for millenniums. But modern development is rapidly turning the cradle of Western civilization into a dry and inhospitable place, its coasts covered in hotels and many of its unique species driven to extinction.

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In the past 30 years, coastal populations have grown some 50 percent. Coastal cities have doubled. Tourism has exploded: By 2025, 312 million tourists will visit each year. Water usage is twice that of 1950. More than 100 species are endangered.

Now, climate change is exacerbating the situation.

The region's climate may already be changing faster than projected. In June, a recording station in Athens measured the highest temperature ever recorded there, nearly 113 degrees Fahrenheit.

Overall, temperatures for the summer months were about 5 degrees warmer than average. Months passed without rain. Then deadly fires swept across the country, killing at least 67 people and scorching some 650,000 acres of land.

The abnormal weather in 2007 is not proof that climate change is here, scientists say, but it is a strong indicator. And it's a taste of what's likely to come if the world continues to spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

"You can say it was probably an ordinary summer of the years to come," says Christos Giannakopoulos, a researcher at the National Observatory of Athens and contributor to the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). "This [kind of] summer still will not happen every one or every two years. But in the future, this ... might happen every year."

Greece was not the only Mediterranean country to experience extreme weather last summer.

In Turkey, heat and drought caused major crop failures and forced Ankara to ration city water. By autumn, the water supplies in Cyprus's reservoirs had dwindled to 9 percent of capacity. Fires raged across Spain, Italy, Croatia, and Algeria in one of the worst seasons since the European Union began tracking in the 1980s.

Major meeting this week

This week, the 22 signatories of the 1976 Barcelona Convention, an agreement to protect the Mediterranean, are meeting in Almeria, Spain. Despite international efforts, however, the pace of environmental destruction in the Mediterranean has quickened.

Climate change adds a new threat to the list. The Nobel-prizewinning IPCC identified the Mediterranean – already hot and short of water – as one of the world's regions most vulnerable to global warming.

A new report by the UN Environment Program (UNEP) highlights the sea's eastern and southern shores as potential hot spots where climate change could turn the scramble for scarce resources nto sources of conflict, as well as increase the pace of illegal migration.

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