Fifty Degrees in the Persian Gulf
The first time I experienced 50°C was in the middle of the Algerian Sahara. It’s hard to describe how it feels; the best I can do is compare it to carrying a very heavy burden. In the open desert such extremes of temperature at least make a kind of sense: inhospitable conditions are to be expected. It’s worse in a city. The second time I felt 50°C was in Erbil, in Iraqi Kurdistan, outside the palatial headquarters of the Talabani family. The building, a neoclassical folly known as the White House, was full of guards in suits carrying assault rifles, but since it had air conditioning it felt like a sanctuary.
You can’t escape the heat by dodging between patches of shade. It’s more a case of driving between climate-controlled buildings, and better not to move around at all. Around the Persian Gulf, fifty-degree days are no longer aberrations. In Iraq and Kuwait they have become routine. Further west, even cities on the Red Sea such as Yanbu have seen 50°C. The Gulf is both at the centre of global hydrocarbon production and at the fore of its climatic effects. The average temperature rise in the region is already well over two degrees above pre-industrial levels.
The most extreme heat is often in the north of the Gulf, in Kuwait, Basra and Khuzestan, near the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab. In summer 2021, the temperature hit 53.2°C in Kuwait City. News reports described birds dropping out of the sky and sea horses being poached in the shallows. Kuwait is occasionally the subject of wild predictions of much worse heat (up to 60°C) to come by the end of the century. Even if that doesn’t happen, the present combination of long-term drought and sea-level rise is bad enough. Unbearable heat, dust storms, rising tides: this is the climate maw.
Besides the obvious reliance on air conditioning for survival, other adaptations have become necessary. Oil storage tanks need to be able to withstand not only very high temperatures but also high humidity and the occasional sandstorm. Some have floating roofs that rise as the tanks are filled. Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG) is kept in pressurised spheres that are temperature controlled. The hotels that dot the Gulf coast are products of geo-engineering: the effort to build and maintain them seems an exercise in both fury and futility. But the conquest of geography is business as usual here. The South Pars/North Dome gas field, split between the waters of Qatar and Iran, has wells that are three thousand metres deep.
Oil and gas aren’t the only things for which the states around the Gulf dig deep. Historically, most of the drinking water came from wells. But the underground reservoirs are drying up, and they are replaced only by desalination plants. The Gulf accounts for almost half of global desalination. The plants are monstrous mazes of pipes and towers. Some run on solar power. In Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, desalinated seawater is now the source of more than 95 per cent of the drinking water.
It was not always so. The Gulf as we know it started to form at the tail end of the Pleistocene, when global sea levels were a hundred metres lower than they are today. About fifteen thousand years ago, as the northern ice sheets melted, the sea came in through the Strait of Hormuz. The Gulf filled fast (within a few thousand years), a sudden inundation that coincided with the appearance, in the Levant, of the first human villages, and later the invention of agriculture. The land around the Tigris, the Euphrates and the head of the Gulf was exceptionally fertile and the population of Southern Mesopotamia exploded. Mollusc fossils show that the Gulf came further north then, reaching as far as present-day Nasiriyah before it started to recede. It’s possible that shifts in the water were among the factors that drove people into concentrated irrigated settlements with elaborate hierarchies: the first cities and the first states.
The earliest accounts of war come from this time, between the Sumerians and the Elamites. The Sumerian king Enmebaragesi invaded the Iranian plateau and subjugated it, at least according to the Sumerian records. The Stele of Vultures, which dates to about 2500 BC, depicts soldiers marching in formation, carrying spears and overlapping rectangular shields. In The Epic of Gilgamesh, Uta-napishti – the legendary king of Shuruppak who survived the Flood and has become immortal – says to Gilgamesh (in Andrew George’s translation):
Ever do we build our households,
ever do we make our nests,
ever do brothers divide their inheritance,
ever do feuds arise in the land.
Ever the river has risen and brought us the flood,
the mayfly floating on the water.
On the face of the sun its countenance gazes,
then all of a sudden nothing is there!
Imagining the deep past is fraught because what we know of the present so often intrudes on what we think of the past. Can we really imagine the Mediterranean as a giant salt flat, even when we know that fifteen million years ago that’s what it was? To compare ancient wars around the Gulf with more recent conflicts is to yield to the tyranny of the present: the Gulf was another Gulf, its shores and inlets in different places and with different shapes. Still, the conflicts continue. In September 2019, after five years of war in Yemen, the Houthi movement used drones to bomb Abqaiq, the largest oil processing plant in the world, owned by the Saudi national oil company. Saudi Arabia claimed Iran was behind the attack. Last March, the Houthis hit an oil storage facility near Jeddah. The fires sent up a murmuration of black smoke over the gold and white of the city.
The Gulf has been rising about three millimetres a year since the 1990s. The water is getting hotter too, and bleaching the coral – which Uta-napishti tells Gilgamesh will restore his youth – as it does so. The coral has always shared the water with natural islands and salt domes, not to mention the hundreds of offshore oil and gas platforms. Desalination plants and oil terminals sit on top of what were once mangrove forests. The dragon snail and the green sawfish are among the endangered species.
Occasionally there is news of surprising resurrections. In 2021, there were sightings in the Gulf of the tentacled butterfly ray (Gymnura tentaculata), previously thought to be extinct. The patterns on the ray’s skin remind me of satellite maps of unexplored terrain. Who knows how long they’ll last.
This piece is part of the LRB’s collaboration with the World Weather Network.