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.
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.
On a political level, the urgency of the Mediterranean's environmental situation has been understood for at least three decades. In 1975, just three years after the creation of the UNEP, the countries bordering the sea created the Mediterranean Action Plan and a year later signed the Barcelona Convention, committing themselves to regional environmental cooperation. It was the first such agreement of its kind in the world.
Over the years, the convention – expanded in 1995 to coastal areas – has served as the framework for a number of environmental initiatives – to reduce land-based pollution, for example – as well as an important foundation for regional cooperation. This week, ministers from the 22 Barcelona Convention countries and territories will hold their biannual meeting where they are expected to discuss climate change and agree to new regulations on coastal development.
The convention has often broken new ground on environmental cooperation, creating a model that has been used in other parts of the world. But it also illustrates how difficult transforming concern into effective action can be.
"Barcelona is one of the oldest conventions in the world and it helped create an awareness that there was a common good to protect," says François Simard, a Mediterranean researcher with the World Conservation Union (IUCN). "It's true that one can say it's a huge amount of energy that is going into that convention and the results are not enough. But without the Barcelona Convention, I'm sure things would be much worse."
Although climate models disagree on details, such as by exactly how many degrees average temperatures will rise and how quickly, they all foresee a similar future for the region. By the end of the century, much of the Mediterranean may too hot in the summer for tourists to sun on its beaches and too dry for many crops now grown there. Heat waves will become commonplace, and water, already scarce, will become more so. According to the IPCC, the average summer temperature on the North African coast could be 16 degrees hotter, while in southern Europe summer rainfall could decline by as much as 80 percent. The sea level could rise by 10 to 12 inches.
Already there are signs that warming is occurring – and that it may be happening in the Mediterranean faster than elsewhere. Data from the National Observatory of Athens show that Greece is already in the midst of a warming period that has lasted more than 15 years. Between 1992 and 2001, the temperature in Athens increased by between 3.6 and 5.4 degrees.
Anecdotal evidence also suggest that the sea's waters may be warming, further threatening the sea's biodiversity, which is already under threat from fishing and development. Hundreds of invasive species, like algae and fish that crossed through the Suez Canal from the Red Sea, have moved in. In other places, native species like coral and sea sponges are struggling to survive in warmer waters or are being driven out by new arrivals.
"The landscape of some areas has completely changed," says Richardo Aguilar, director of research for Europe for the nongovernmental group Oceana. "But most people ... are just going to the beach, they cannot see what's happening inside the sea."
The drought and devastating fires experienced in 2007, say environmental activists in the region, has started to convince many who once saw climate change as a remote threat that it is a reality.
"People are starting to feel that climate change, global warming, is beginning to affect their lives," said Daphne Mavrogiorgos, an activist at the Hellenic Society for the Protection of the Environment and Cultural Heritage. "There's a long way to go, but it's a start."