Interview with Dr Khalil Karami

Dr Khalil Karami is the lead author of the first SRM modelling study to come from the MENA region. Photo: Khalil Karami

In June, the Iran Degrees Modelling Fund (DMF) team led by Dr Khalil Karami published its first SRM research paper.  We talked with Khalil about the study and his path to leading the region’s first SRM research team. In their paper published in Geophysical Research Letters, Khalil’s team explored how SRM could affect storm tracks in the region, and they concluded that it could partially offset the shift of storm tracks induced by global warming. Based at the Centre for Research in Climate Change and Global Warming at the IASBS in Zanjan, they are the first research team from the MENA region to publish a paper on SRM. The team’s experience working on the DMF has been far from smooth, however. Due to American economic sanctions against Iran, SRMGI (The Degrees Initiative) was unable to pay for any of the team’s salaries or equipment. But Khalil and his colleague Vahid didn’t let this discourage them, and they decided to carry out their DMF research anyway, making this first study an even more impressive achievement.

Khalil’s interests in climate and meteorology stem from his days as a physics undergraduate. After trying without success to identify a link between changes in the level of solar activity and his local weather, he took part in a national competition for geophysics and meteorology in 2008 and was honoured to rank first out of several hundred candidates. He completed his MSc at the University of Tehran, his PhD at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, and spent time as a guest researcher at the University of Cambridge before returning to Iran.

What are the biggest climate threats to the MENA region?

From my experience travelling across the Middle East, water shortages and temperature extremes are by far the greatest threats. Previous research indicates that future temperatures in the region are projected to exceed a threshold for human adaptability. But the climate isn’t the only factor putting pressure on people; water mismanagement for instance is another one. To give an example, in the Iranian Sistan and Baluchestan Province, long-term precipitation is about seven times lower than in England. Yet, this region is an exporter of watermelon, known for its huge water usage.

Why are storm tracks significant for the region?

Storm tracks are zones outside the tropics where storms commonly develop, and which play a crucial role in the climate system. Indeed, they carry huge amounts of heat and moisture away from their source regions towards remote locations, thereby shaping climate patterns. Any significant changes to these storm tracks would therefore have major impacts on local people, and it is of significant interest to them to understand how storm tracks would respond to climate change and stratospheric geoengineering.

Tell us about your research: what did you study and what did you find?

Previous modelling studies have suggested that storm tracks would shift poleward in the Northern Hemisphere due to climate change. As a consequence, the Middle East and North Africa would most likely experience a strong reduction in precipitation, putting the region’s vulnerable environment under increased stress. In our research, we studied how storm tracks would change in the region under the influence of a high-emissions scenario (RCP8.5) with and without stratospheric aerosol geoengineering, using modelling data from NCAR’s Stratospheric Aerosol Geoengineering Large Ensemble (GLENS) project.

In the simulation without SRM, we found that storm tracks shift away from the equator, which is in line with past studies. In the simulation where SRM was deployed, our analysis has shown that SRM could partially offset this poleward shift. This would somewhat soothe environmental and water stress on the region compared to a world without SRM.

The Dragon storm about to hit Egypt in March 2020. Photo: NOAA
What did you think when you first heard about SRM?

I think it is a smart idea. I already knew that some of humanity’s greatest inventions had originated from mimicking nature. Take the sonar for example: it uses sound propagation under water to detect objects and communicate. But although this technology is relatively new to humans, dolphins have been using the same ‘technology’ for a very long time. The same is true for bats and echolocation. Looking at volcanoes, we know that volcanic particles, by reflecting the sun’s radiation, can act like a giant cooler on the earth’s climate system. Stratospheric geoengineering would basically mimic what natural volcanoes do.

I have been to cities with temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius and considerable humidity, and when you mention this idea to people who live in countries that have this kind of conditions, they are interested to hear about it. The reason for their interest is simple: it helps to cool down the environment. But if there is a risk doing this, they need to know it too. This is why we need to study it.

What is the state of knowledge about SRM in Iran? It sounds as if you are one of the first people to look at it in the region.

Some people in Iran already know about it, but not many. Right from the beginning of my project though, there has been a huge interest in our work and I have been invited to deliver talks on geoengineering several times. Developing countries have low greenhouse gas emissions but they are at the frontlines of climate change. The Mediterranean and MENA regions are a transition zone influenced by both tropical and mid-latitude processes, and the deployment of SRM could affect both the thermodynamics and dynamics of the Earth’s major climatic zones, with possibly large socio-economic consequences. Therefore, we really need to understand how SRM would affect countries in the Global South, in particular in the MENA region. So far, most of the research on SRM has been done in countries from the Global North. If we as Global South countries do not conduct research on SRM, then the voices of the Global North will determine future climate policies on the matter.

With the US sanctions against Iran, you were unable to receive funding towards your salary for your DMF work. But you carried on with the research anyway—what was your thinking behind this?

At the beginning of the project, I was really ambitious and wanted to involve a large team. This was exciting especially as we have a very good education system in Iran, and can thus easily hire talented master’s or PhD students. But soon, I figured out this wouldn’t be straightforward under the current sanctions. Although we had to keep the team much smaller than anticipated, from a personal perspective, I never lost my desire to continue the project. There is a Persian proverb that says “Have patience, and I’ll make halvah for you from unripe grapes.” Halvah is a traditional sweet used in Iran and across the Middle East, and there is a special type of halvah made from grape syrup. What this proverb says is that if you wait enough, unripe grape—which is extremely sour—will turn into sweet grape that can be used to obtain a pleasant tasting halvah. So, the proverb recommends being patient and committed during hard and unpleasant times with the hope that good and easier times will come afterwards.

After almost two years researching SRM impacts, I can now see the first results of patience and commitment. Not only with the successful research and this publication, but also the inner satisfaction that comes from the sense of belonging to an intellectual, research-based community. For me, these are great achievements, and I cannot buy them with any money. While I do not want to undermine the importance of financial resources—this would allow me to expand the group and our activities—I like to emphasise the opportunity that the DMF has provided for me to be part of the SRM research community, and I am really grateful for this.

What would you like to research in the future?

First, I would like to expand my expertise on how SRM can affect blocking events and extreme weather events in the Mediterranean and MENA regions. Then, I would like to know how the planet’s large-scale dynamics would respond to SRM as this is my main area of expertise. And looking ahead, I would also like to help the next generation of Iranian students to work in research, and why not, work with future DMF teams as a research collaborator—the role that Helene Muri and Simone Tilmes (co-authors of this study) played for our team. 

Khalil Karami and Vahid Mousavi with their co-authors Helene Muri and Simone Tilmes in Trieste, Italy, November 2018. Photo: François Pougel for Degrees

Interview by François Pougel