Hajj pilgrims die of heatstroke as Mecca temperatures hit 120 degrees

At least six Jordanian pilgrims have died of heatstroke while on the Hajj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia, Jordan’s Foreign Ministry said Sunday, amid growing concern over the risks that rising temperatures pose to one of the largest gatherings in the world.

Temperatures in Mecca, home to Islam’s holiest site, reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Celsius) on Sunday, according to the National Center for Meteorology. Jordan’s Foreign Ministry later updated the toll to 14, though it was not immediately clear whether the additional deaths were also heat-related.

More than 2,700 cases of heat stress and sunstroke among pilgrims were reported, Mohammed Al-Abdulaali, a spokesman for the Saudi Health Ministry, said Monday, according to the Saudi Press Agency.

Hajj is one of the five pillars of Islam, and at least one pilgrimage in a lifetime is considered an obligation for all Muslims who are able-bodied and have the financial means. Most rituals are outdoors, including walking in circles around the cube-shaped Kaaba, the most sacred Islamic site, saying prayers facing it and tracing the footsteps of the prophet Muhammad atop the Mount of Mercy.

This year’s Hajj is being attended by 1.8 million people from around the world, local authorities have said. The pilgrimage began on Friday and is set to culminate Wednesday. Islam follows the lunar calendar, with 354 days, so Hajj shifts by 10 or 11 days every year on the Gregorian calendar.

Increasing heat and humidity due to climate change in parts of Saudi Arabia where the Hajj takes place could make the pilgrimage dangerous for some, a study published in 2019 said. Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles said the risks could be serious when Hajj occurs during the hottest summer months — from 2047 to 2052 and from 2079 to 2086.

“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,” Jeremy Pal, one of the authors of the 2019 study, wrote in an email Monday, adding that the Hajj’s shift earlier and earlier each year means the pilgrimage should at least be able to avoid the window of extremely dangerous conditions for the next couple of decades.


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Thousands of cases of heat stress were reported during last year’s Hajj, which fell in late June.

Besides protective countermeasures, the researchers recommend limiting the number of pilgrims and prioritizing those in good health during the high-risk years. (During the coronavirus pandemic in 2021, Saudi Arabia restricted the participation to pilgrims under 65 and capped the gathering at 60,000 people.)

In 2050, Mecca will have 182 days with highly dangerous heat above 89.6 degrees in the sun and 54 days with such heat in the shade, according to a global analysis by The Washington Post.

Saudi Arabia has been trying to adapt to the fast-changing situation. It hands out cold water to pilgrims, it has installed large umbrellas with mist fans, and it has set up dedicated hospitals to treat heat-related illnesses.

The country’s Ministry of Hajj and Umrah has also recommended measures that pilgrims can take to avoid heatstroke, including minimizing sun exposure and drinking fluids.

Pal, now at the Euro-Mediterranean Center on Climate Change in Italy, said that these measures are required and that under certain conditions, “even those not falling in the high-risk categories” can be vulnerable to heatstroke.

The challenge from surging heat is global. Dozens of heat-related deaths have been reported this summer from India, where temperatures have surged to 120 degrees and nights remain over 90 in parts of the country. In Greece, authorities are concerned as tourists have gone missing amid the high temperatures sweeping the country. And on Sunday, the National Weather Service issued a heat watch for parts of the United States, predicting a “prolonged period of dangerously hot conditions” with “intense heat and high humidity.”

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