DOHA, Qatar – It was 116 degrees in the shade outside the new Al Janoub soccer stadium, and the air felt as if God had pointed “a giant hair dryer” at Qatar, said to air-conditioning expert Saud Ghani.
Yet inside the open-air stadium, a cool breeze was blowing. Beneath each of the 40,000 seats, small grates adorned with Arabic-style patterns were pushing out cool air at ankle level. And since cool air sinks, waves of it rolled gently down to the grassy playing field. Vents the size of soccer balls fed more cold air onto the field.
Ghani, an engineering professor at Qatar University, designed the system at Al Janoub, one of eight stadiums that the tiny but fabulously rich Qatar must get in shape for the 2022 World Cup. His breakthrough realization was that he had to cool only people, not the upper reaches of the stadium — a graceful structure designed by the famed Zaha Hadid Architects. “I don’t need to cool the birds,” he said.
Qatar, the world’s leading exporter of liquefied natural gas, may be able to cool its stadiums, but it cannot cool the entire country. Fears that the hundreds of thousands of soccer fans might wilt or even die while shuttling between stadiums and metros and hotels in the summer heat prompted the decision to delay the World Cup by five months. It is now scheduled for November.
The change in the World Cup date is a symptom of a larger problem — climate change. Already one of the hottest places on Earth, Qatar has seen average temperatures rise more than 2 3.6 degrees above preindustrial times, the current international goal for limiting the damage of global warming.
Over the past three decades, temperature increases in Qatar have been accelerating. That’s because of the uneven nature of climate change as well as the surge in construction that drives climate conditions around Doha, the capital. The temperatures are also rising because Qatar, slightly smaller than Connecticut, juts out from Saudi Arabia into the rapidly warming waters of the Persian Gulf.
In a July 2010 heat wave, the temperature hit an all-time high of 122.7 degrees.
“Qatar is one of the fastest warming areas of the world, at least outside of the Arctic,” said Zeke Hausfather, a climate data scientist at Berkeley Earth. “Changes there can help give us a sense of what the rest of the world can expect if we do not take action to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.”
While climate change inflicts suffering in the world’s poorest places from Somalia to Syria, in rich places such as the United States, Europe and Qatar global warming poses an engineering problem, not an existential one. And it can be addressed, at least temporarily, with money and technology.
To survive the summer heat, Qatar not only air-conditions its soccer stadiums, but also the markets, along sidewalks, at outdoor malls. “If you turn off air conditioners, it will be unbearable. You cannot function effectively,” said Yousef al-Horr, founder of the Gulf Organization for Research and Development.
Yet outdoor air conditioning is part of a vicious cycle. Carbon emissions create global warming, which creates the desire for air conditioning, which creates the need for burning fuels that emit more carbon dioxide. In Qatar, total cooling capacity is expected to nearly double from 2016 to 2030, said the International District Cooling & Heating Conference. And it’s going to get hotter.
By the time average global warming hits 3.6 degrees, Qatar’s temperatures would soar, said Mohammed Ayoub, senior research director at the Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute.
In rapidly growing urban areas throughout the Middle East, some predict cities could become uninhabitable. “We’re talking about 4 to 6 degrees Celsius (7.2 to 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit) increase in an area that already experiences high temperatures,” Ayoub said. “So, what we’re looking at more is a question of how does this impact the health and productivity of the population.”
The danger is acute in Qatar because of the Persian Gulf humidity. The body cools when its sweat evaporates. But when humidity is very high, evaporation slows or stops. “If it’s hot and humid and the relative humidity is close to 100%, you can die from the heat you produce yourself,” said Jos Lelieveld, an atmospheric chemist at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry.
He said the country is caught in a feedback loop. Though there are virtually no clouds or rain in Qatar, rising water temperatures in the Persian Gulf lead to more atmospheric humidity. That means there is more water vapor, which is a greenhouse gas and contributes to yet more warming. “The story is that these areas are warming faster than the rest of the globe, and in certain cities on top of that you have an urban heat island effect and urban pollution,” he said.
In the Middle East, concerns are rising that the combination of heat and humidity will one day exceed the capacity of humans to tolerate the outdoors. In such conditions, air conditioning would no longer be a convenience; it would be essential to survival. “I often get asked: ‘Can we reverse whatever is happening in the climate?’” said Abdulla al-Mannai, director of the Qatar Meteorology Department. “I ask: Can you turn off air conditioning and refrigeration and stop using cars? Nobody will say yes.”