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Over 500 reportedly die on major religious pilgrimage as temperatures hit 125 degrees: 'Truly a tragic situation'

"It unfortunately does not come as a surprise."

"It unfortunately does not come as a surprise."

Extreme heat has led to tragedy this week in Saudi Arabia, as multiple outlets are reporting over 500 people have died during the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca as of Wednesday. 

What happened?

The annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia is a journey most Muslims will make once in their lifetime. An estimated two million take part in the pilgrimage every year, but increasingly hot days are making the event more dangerous. 

As thermometers reached 125 degrees Fahrenheit this week, the pilgrimage became seriously dangerous for participants. The country's foreign ministry announced 14 people had died on the route as of Monday, according to The Washington Post, with heatstroke confirmed as the cause of six. But as the week progressed, the numbers got much worse, and the latest reporting from the Post and Associated Press is that over 500 people have now died during the pilgrimage, with the AP reporting one estimate of "at least 600."

There is still a lack of a singular official total, but the Post broke the numbers down across reporting through contacts speaking on behalf of individual countries who had citizens traveling there: "Two unnamed Arab diplomats told the Agence France-Presse news service that 323 people from Egypt alone had died, most because of heat-related illnesses. Egypt has not yet shared an official count, but other countries whose citizens flocked to the holy city of Mecca have been reporting tolls: at least 138 from Indonesia, 41 from Jordan and 35 from Tunisia."

Unfortunately, the fatalities have been expected by some researchers. In a 2019 study, as detailed by the Post, scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles warned that there will be serious risks to those taking part in the pilgrimage in the hottest summer months. With the Hajj following the lunar calendar, it's anticipated events from 2047 to 2052 and 2079 to 2086 will be seriously dangerous. 

"While this is a truly tragic situation, it unfortunately does not come as a surprise except for perhaps that such events are occurring sooner than expected," study author Jeremy Pal told the Post. 

Why is extreme heat so concerning?

Extreme heat increases the risk of heat-related illnesses, such as heat stroke, heat rash, heat stress, and heat exhaustion. It also makes heart attacks and strokes more likely and can exacerbate pre-existing kidney or lung diseases. 

If the body overheats, it can be deadly. With two million Muslims taking part in the Hajj pilgrimage every year, the death toll of 14 could be eclipsed in forthcoming events if temperatures continue to rise. 

According to the World Bank's Climate Knowledge Portal, the average seasonal maximum temperature in Saudi Arabia has steadily increased across periods of three decades. Between 1901 to 1930, the average maximum high across June through August was 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Over the next two windows of 30 years, this rose to 104.5 Fahrenheit and 104.7 Fahrenheit, respectively. But between 1991 and 2020, the average high was 106.5 degrees Fahrenheit.

While heatwaves can be isolated weather events, extreme temperatures are becoming more frequent and longer lasting as a result of human-caused global heating. If high pollution rates persist — made worse by unsustainable practices in the energy, agricultural, transportation, and manufacturing sectors, to name a few — thermometers could creep ever higher in the coming years.

What's being done to protect people on the Hajj pilgrimage?

According to the Post, Saudi Arabia has been trying its best to protect pilgrims. The state has been providing travelers with cold water and has installed large umbrellas and mist fans. It has also established dedicated hospitals to deal with pilgrims exhibiting symptoms of heat-related illnesses.

With the event moving closer to cooler months over the coming years, it's hoped the impact of severe heat won't be as pronounced. However, the Jordanian tragedies emphasize the need to implement effective pollution-reduction policies worldwide to stop planet-warming gases like carbon dioxide and methane from being released at such an alarming regularity.

This is largely the responsibility of policy-makers and business leaders, but there are still ways to make your voice heard, and small changes at home can make a difference, too. Even if it's just unplugging energy vampires at night or composting your food waste, reducing energy consumption and landfill waste can limit the harmful pollution we produce on a daily basis. 

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