The unpredictable annual flow of the Nile River is legendary, as evidenced by the story of Joseph and the Pharaoh, whose dream foretold seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine in a land whose agriculture was, and still is, utterly dependent on that flow. Now, researchers at MIT have found that climate change may drastically increase the variability in Nile’s annual output.
Being able to predict the amount of flow variability, and even to forecast likely years of reduced flow, will become ever more important as the population of the Nile River basin, primarily in Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia, is expected to double by 2050, reaching nearly 1 billion. The new study, based on a variety of global climate models and records of rainfall and flow rates over the last half-century, projects an increase of 50 percent in the amount of flow variation from year to year.
The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, was carried out by professor of civil and environmental engineering Elfatih Eltahir and postdoc Mohamed Siam. They found that as a result of a warming climate, there will be an increase in the intensity and duration of the Pacific Ocean phenomenon known as the El Niño/La Niña cycle, which they had previously shown is strongly connected to annual rainfall variations in the Ethiopian highlands and adjacent eastern Nile basins. These regions are the primary sources of the Nile’s waters, accounting for some 80 percent of the river’s total flow.