Shani Ashkenazi March 15 2024

We asked Dr. Amir Givati, director of the incoming meteorological service, whether we are already in a climate crisis.

“The sea is warm and we are receiving concentrated rainfall in a short period of time. We had in the Galilee and the Sharon area an event considered a ‘natural disaster,’ meaning the chance of it happening is less than 5% – a short-term drop of more than 150 mm of rain. These are anomalies we have not seen for decades. At the end of one weekend, Netanya received the average amount of rain for the whole winter, these are characteristics of monsoon rains. The frequency of cold and hot events is becoming more extreme,” he responded.

Are these not blessed rains? “If it falls in an hour in dense areas where the drainage is problematic, like the greater Tel Aviv region — then the damage outweighs the benefit. Add to that the construction that makes it difficult for the rain to seep in because there are no open areas, and that means we are also not utilizing the rains.”

What is the summer expected to look like? “It seems that we are about to experience a summer of extreme events. The main reason is the ‘El Niño’, a phenomenon that occurs in the Atlantic Ocean and warms its waters. In addition to that, there is also the temperature rise caused by greenhouse gas emissions.”

How do we prepare for such a future deterioration? “We need a smart plan that will allow us to capture as much of the rainfall as possible and use it, also to reduce flooding. Every 1% of runoff water utilization means less damage to infrastructure. We are number one in the world in sewage water, we have a lot to learn about runoff water. For example, Denmark and the Netherlands have rainwater reservoirs at the entrance to the city, or they catch the runoff on roofs and leave open spaces in the city to absorb the water. In Arizona, there is a law that prohibits releasing water to lawns. These things require legislation and enforcement.”

World leaders have pledged to stop the temperature rise at a degree and a half. What does that mean? “The issue is not random. The fear was that this is a point of no return. Meaning that even if we reduce emissions, the rate of warming will not slow down. A new study recently published shows how every degree of temperature rise increases by tens of percent the intensities of the rain: When there is no warming we are supposed to get a rain event of 30 mm in 10 minutes once a decade. If the atmosphere warms by a degree, it will cause 40 mm in 10 minutes. The impact is huge in terms of flooding and drainage. We are heading toward such a world. Not only fires, heatwaves and food damage, but also intense rain events.”

Does the world have any chance to stop the temperature rise? “There are very pessimistic researchers. It is true that there are points of light in the development and use of renewable energies. But at the same time, the use of fossil energy is also increasing. Emissions are not decreasing and the implication is a continuation of the warming. Most scientists point to a very clear direction. A new article, for example, talks about how, by the end of the century, every year we will experience a temperature of 122°F in the greater Tel Aviv region. If this is an event that happens today once a century, by the end of the century it will happen every year. In recent years we have mainly seen the promo. These are events that are out of statistics. It means that the climate structure will change, the seasons will change.”

These are conditions humanity does not know, so how do we prepare for them? “We need to prepare for scenarios in which summers and heatwaves will be longer and the duration of the heatwaves will be longer than before. In the last four years, we have had extreme heat events even in places where they usually do not occur. Last year, records were broken in Rishon LeZion and Beit Dagan. And in Petah Tikva, a temperature of 115°F was measured. No less important than the intensity is the duration: In 2021 we had a heatwave of eight days and last summer it was the first time that the temperature in Beit Dagan did not drop from 84°F at night for almost three weeks. This has a significant impact on health, energy consumption and agriculture.”

How will agriculture be affected? “In the work I did in my previous role for the Ministry of Agriculture, we saw that climate change will result in an 18% decrease in crop yields in the coming decades. In some of the crops, after a season of extreme events, there may be a drop of 60% in yield. Potatoes, for example, love cold and it’s a wonder that they are grown in Israel. From our examination, it emerged that in recent years they need much more water: if before they were watered once every five days, now it’s once every two days. That is, it will cost much more to grow potatoes. After a particularly hot spring and summer, potato yield in Israel could drop by 15%. We are not unique in this, of course; in Britain, it was reported in November that potato yield may reach a low of 4 million tons due to the weather. This could lead to shortages in vegetables and rising prices.”

What else did you discover about Israeli agriculture? “In the second half of the century, there will be years when we simply will not have wheat yields due to droughts and heatwaves. The conditions for certain crops such as strawberries, apples, almonds and olives will not be possible in many places in the country in the coming decades because there are not enough cold units. In the last 30 years, we have dropped from 1,500 cold hours a year to 800. This means that the growing areas are shrinking. If the trend continues and the cold hours drop, there will be years when fruit simply will not grow. By the end of the century, we may reach a situation where it will not be possible to grow apples and strawberries in Israel.

“Extreme temperatures also affect other crops such as bananas, avocados and citrus fruits. Is the State of Israel suitable for deciduous crops? I’m not sure. According to a recent scientific article, by the end of the century it will not be possible to grow olives in Lebanon. This is a less dry and cooler country than Israel. This means that if the summer gets hotter we also will not be able to grow the olive that is so identified with the region. Without intervention or changes, Israeli agriculture will be severely damaged.”

How should agriculture adapt? “We need to scrutinize the future of Israeli crops. Israel needs to develop crop varieties that are more resistant to heat and climate changes, which is currently being done at the Volcani Institute. Additionally, we need to consider what crops we will be able to cultivate in the future and where. While we have a relative advantage in irrigation due to sewage recycling and desalination, we are not immune to extreme events. Climate changes necessitate adaptation, which is a significant challenge. Seed companies worldwide are already reporting a decrease in yields by tens of percent. If we invest in Israeli agriculture, it could have a greater advantage over other countries. This means we have a significant opportunity. We can already see today what happens in countries that lack solutions to the situation, like Spain.”

The meteorological service in many countries is at the forefront of dealing with the field, and provides decision-makers with science-based coping with future changes. What are your plans for the coming years for the service? “As someone who has been in this field for quite a few years, both in an academic capacity and also because I grew up working with the water authority, I am aware that the challenges are very large. The climate does not wait for us to learn how to cope with it. Even if there is great uncertainty and different years, it is clear that we are moving toward a much more extreme climate. My vision is that the service will provide a service to the entire public and all sectors and decision-makers using the most advanced tools. This means providing climate intelligence at all time ranges; from what will happen in an hour to what will happen at the end of the century, so that we can prepare in the best way: from what to wear when I leave the house to how the country needs to prepare in terms of infrastructure years ahead and in terms of protecting human health.”

How should the meteorological service function in light of budget cuts? “We find ourselves at the end of March without an approved budget, trying to function in this scenario and still uncertain about the budget for 2024. The demands are increasing, particularly regarding equipment. In the past, there were issues with the radar, but a budget was found to renew it, and for the radar in Beit Dagan, it is sufficient. Indeed, we require more resources and additional radars, especially in the north and the south.

The precision we need to provide is escalating. Our challenges are growing, and this field needs to be budgeted accordingly. For the coming year, we will determine our requirements and make requests, hoping that the budget will mirror the increasing needs across all sectors, from aviation to agriculture. We understand that we will have to prioritize, but it is clear to us that the budget needs to be augmented.”

Where does the service stand globally? “The Israeli Meteorological Service needs to be more globally connected to share information and learn. We aim to develop tools to equip us with more coping mechanisms. Decision-makers will be given tools that will paint a picture of our trajectory and implications. They will then choose how to react. This is a significant task that requires resources. We have the expertise for it. It forms part of the national resilience of any country.”