Malta’s average temperature increased 1°C in 70 years... and experts warn of more frequent heatwaves

While awareness on the impact of global warming-driven climate change is not scarce, global efforts to counter the phenomenon have not been as successful as is necessary according to a majority of climate researchers

The average yearly temperature, as recorded by the Meteorological Office at the Malta International Airport, has increased by roughly 1°C since 1950, while the average yearly surface sea temperature has increased by 2°C in the past 30 years, since 1978. 

By comparison, the average global temperature has increased by about 0.8°C since 1880, with roughly two-thirds of the increase occurring since 1975 at a rate of approximately 0.15- 0.20°C per decade. 

Earlier this month, Malta endured its third heatwave of the summer, and, while temperatures are nowhere as warm as they are in other parts of the world, this is symptomatic of global warming-driven climate change. 

According to James Ciarlò, a researcher at the Climate Research Group in the department of Geosciences at the University of Malta, the country’s climate and seasonal cycle have already been disturbed. 

He said Malta would continue to experience more frequent, longer and more intense heatwaves in the coming years as a result.

In recent years, the Mediterranean has also started to experience hurricane-like events, such as the storms that hit Malta in November 2014, which brought extreme winds and rain, as well as a significant amount of damage. We should probably also get used to more of these storms, he said. 

“Our seasonal cycle has been disrupted and this is affecting plants and bee populations,” said Ciarlò. “These problems are happening now.” 

While awareness on the impact of global warming-driven climate change is not scarce, global efforts to counter the phenomenon have not been as successful as is necessary according to a majority of climate researchers. 

An article published in the New York Magazine last month has become the most read article in the publication’s history. The article, entitled The Uninhabitable Earth, runs through a list of possible scenarios resulting from global warming, from vast amounts of the greenhouse gas methane being released into the atmosphere once ice at the earth’s poles melts, to smallpox and the bubonic plague trapped in Siberian ice making a comeback. 

It paints a harrowing picture of humanity’s chances of halting, and indeed reversing the phenomenon. 

Though the article references several studies, it has been described as hyperbolic by some climate researchers. Many argued the global situation was bad enough without needing to be too fatalistic since this could simply contribute to an increased feeling of hopelessness. 

“I don’t believe facts and figures make people feel hopeless,” said Maria Attard, the director of the Institute for Climate Change and Sustainable Development at the University of Malta when asked about the article. 

She said that being more aware of the dangers strengthens people’s resolve to work harder, and that ultimately, the article was “clearly showing the worst-case scenario, which may or may not happen”.

Temperature circle shows change in temperatures since 1950 onwards

undefined: none1950, 191950: 191951, 18.61951: 1952, 19.31952: 1953, 18.31953: 1954, 17.91954: 1955, 19.11955: 1956, 18.41956: 1957, 18.51957: 1958, 18.81958: 1959, 18.51959: 1960, 19.21960: 1961, 18.81961: 1962, 18.81962: 1963, 18.71963: 1964, 18.51964: 1965, 18.31965: 1966, 18.51966: 1967, 18.51967: 1968, 18.41968: 1969, 18.31969: 1970, 18.61970: 1971, 18.21971: 1972, 18.31972: 1973, 18.71973: 1974, 18.41974: 1975, 18.41975: 1976, 17.91976: 1977, 18.91977: 1978, 18.21978: 1979, 18.71979: 1980, 181980: 181981, 18.41981: 1982, 191982: 191983, 18.71983: 1984, 18.31984: 1985, 191985: 191986, 18.81986: 1987, 19.21987: 1988, 19.41988: 1989, 18.91989: 1990, 19.71990: 1991, 18.81991: 1992, 19.11992: 1993, 19.21993: 1994, 19.81994: 1995, 19.21995: 1996, 19.21996: 1997, 19.41997: 1998, 19.51998: 1999, 19.91999: 2000, 19.52000: 2001, 19.92001: 2002, 19.42002: 2003, 19.52003: 2004, 18.92004: 2005, 18.72005: 2006, 19.32006: 2007, 19.72007: 2008, 19.72008: 2009, 19.12009: 2010, 19.32010: 2011, 18.92011: 2012, 19.62012: 2013, 19.72013: 2014, 19.92014: 2015, 19.62015: 2016, 20.12016:

Ciarlò, on the other hand agreed that while the article seemed to be rooted in facts, it was perhaps a bit too “dramatic”, adding that it would have been better had the article informed the public on how it could contribute.  

In addition to changes in weather patterns, Malta’s seas are also at risk, according to Alan Deidun, a marine biologist and environmental activist. One threat, he explained, was the acidification of the sea, resulting from an increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide which is passed on to the ocean, forming carbonic acid.

“A small increase in acidity could impact a large range of aquatic organisms like starfish and sea urchins, which will find it more difficult to secrete their skeleton,” said Deidun.

Another issue flagged by Deidun was the appearance of invasive species in Maltese waters. He said that while the occasional sighting was not uncommon in the past, especially following the opening of the Suez Canal, they were previously unable to “settle here” because the water was too cold. 

“The Mediterranean is becoming a tropical sea which these species can survive in,” he said. “We are seeing more of them, but we are not aware of what the impact is going to be.”

He said new species, such as the recently spotted Lionfish, could pose a threat to swimmers. They could also compete for resources with other species, tear fishermen’s nets and attack Posidonia meadows, which are essential in maintaining biodiversity, in part by preventing the ocean floor from being carried away, especially during rough storms. 

“There are also species of venomous jellyfish, such as the Nomad jellyfish – beaches could be forced to close if they are spotted,” he stressed. “It’s a bomb ready to explode and we are not taking it seriously enough,” he added. 

In reality, about 100 companies around the world have been responsible for roughly 70% of greenhouse gas emissions since 1988, according to a report published by the non-profit organisation CDP.

Efforts by countries as small as Malta are largely insignificant in terms of reducing levels of global emissions.

“While it is easy to feel comfortable thinking that an individual’s effect will not be noticeable on a global scale, one person’s negligence validates the next person’s, and this is not conducive to solving the problem,” Ciarlò said. 

“We are seeing the consequence of this behaviour right now,” he added.

Malta has committed itself to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 2% by 2020 – part of its commitments under the EU2020 framework – but progress has been slow. 

A recent report by the European Commission highlighted that Malta lagged far behind other member states in reaching its targets – in fact, it was the only country that looked unlikely to meet its target.  

Attard explained that while the government has succeeded in reducing emissions from the energy sector through the shift to Liquefied Natural Gas, it was still struggling to reduce transport-related emissions. 

“Growing emissions from transport alone will derail our obligations as the vehicle fleet continues to be one of the oldest in Europe and there are no current projects aimed at reducing car use,” she said, noting that vehicle emissions had doubled between 1990 and 2010.

Attard pointed out that in addition to reducing vehicle emissions, efforts were also required in areas such as agriculture and industry. 

While it is difficult to predict the rate at which global temperatures will continue to rise in the coming years, or how effective efforts to reduce this might be, Attard said that in addition to emissions reduction, the country must also start to think about adaptation.

“We need to plan how Malta’s agriculture, fisheries, water, infrastructure and buildings will cope with projected impacts,” she added. 

Taking transport as an example, Attard said there was a significant portion of Malta’s transport infrastructure that might be at risk from sea-level rise and flash-flooding and that it was necessary for the cost of “mitigating the impact or adapting infrastructure” to be estimated alongside a concrete plan for the short-, medium- and long-term. 

Attard stressed that climate change was a “long-term fight”, and one that required “more informed people, more research, and above all for politicians to consider it a priority.” 

And while in the past, economic development was a more pressing issue, today Malta can’t afford not to implement decisive climate change policy.

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