“Medicane events do not typically exhibit the full characteristics of true hurricanes, although, in rare instances, they can attain hurricane-level intensity,” says Azhar Ehsan, an associate research scientist at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society. Similar to hurricanes, changes in temperature and humidity across the Mediterranean Sea drive the creation of medicanes. Warm sea surface temperatures are the fuel for the more powerful medicanes that climate scientists say will be the new normal. But they’re not the only factors.
The jet stream, the meandering band of air that tears through the upper levels of Earth’s atmosphere, plays a significant role in determining the positions of medicanes, says Ehsan. And as the world enters an El Niño phase, the jet stream is shifting south and east—potentially taking medicanes further south, too. That makes the North African coast more vulnerable to medicanes for the time being. Conversely, when El Niño is replaced by La Niña, the jet stream moves slightly northward and makes southern Europe more medicane-prone.
On top of the effects of El Niño, climate change is causing havoc with the jet stream, slowing it down so that the normally sleek east-west currents bend and buckle into north-south atmospheric rivers. This phenomenon has caused heat domes to form near the Mediterranean, which have been the source of record-breaking sea surface temperatures.
Storm Daniel’s size, intensity, and track—and its human toll—are, perhaps predictably, linked by climate change. Surprisingly, research suggests that climate change is actually going to make medicanes less frequent; while sea surface temperatures will rise, other atmospheric conditions needed to generate medicanes will be suppressed as the world warms. But those storms that do develop will be stronger than ever.
This is a threat that countries should have seen coming. In September 2020, Medicane Ianos slammed into Greece with the force of a Category 2 hurricane and brought record levels of rainfall. The major infrastructure damage and four fatalities caught the attention of media and researchers alike. Research predicting the increased threat from medicanes due to anthropogenic climate change had been published only 20 months earlier, in January 2019.
As Libya has shown, many countries remain ill-equipped to cope. Countries around the Mediterranean must now reckon with how to better protect themselves from the next massive medicane and take proactive measures to improve crucial early-warning systems.
Better monitoring and early warning systems can and will save lives. Such systems enable authorities to evacuate people, provide medical assistance, and take other necessary precautions to minimize loss of life and property damage, says Ehsan. Moreover, robust communication makes sure that crucial information reaches affected communities and emergency responders quickly and reliably. Right now, in Libya, that’s not happening.
Longer term, Ehsan says infrastructure development and fortification of structures can help countries withstand the impacts of extreme climate events, reducing the risk of damage and loss. By prioritizing preparedness and proactive measures, countries can mitigate the impact of future medicanes before it’s too late.