Research

Can't Beat the Heat: Earth's Killer Heat Worsens, Study Shows

Can't Beat the Heat: Earth's Killer Heat Worsens, Study Shows

Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii at Manoa, the study's lead author, is confused why people are not more concerned about lethal heat waves. Such action is under threat with President Trump's announcement this month that he will pull the USA out of the landmark Paris accord, though some cities and states are looking to fill the gap left by the federal government. "Many people around the world are already paying the ultimate price of heatwaves". Heat index is a measure that combines temperature and humidity. The analysis sounds grim when it says that despite reductions, 50% still face the risk of extreme heat that is capable of killing for at least 20 days a year or more.

The paper said the heatwaves in Moscow, Paris and Chicago were mentioned when discussing how unsafe hot weather could be, but the review suggested "that lethal heat events already occur frequently and in many more cities worldwide than suggested by these highly cited examples".

An global team of researchers, led by Mora and the University of Hawaii at Manoa, analyzed hundreds of historic heat waves to quantify what weather conditions posed the greatest risk of death in humans. We were also able to identify a threshold in these two conditions, beyond which the combination and temperature has been lethal in the past. And because it is based on documented cases of real people across the globe, it makes it that much more credible and relevant.

Not surprisingly, the threshold is driven not only by the air temperature, but also the relative humidity. "The empirical data suggest it's getting much worse".

The study allows us to peer into the future for any location on Earth and see how many days per year, on average, that location will cross the potentially deadly threshold the group has identified.

"Even if we "successfully" mitigate climate change, and do follow a strong policy of reducing greenhouse gases here on, we should still expect to see a substantial increase in heat stress worldwide", Matthews said. For example, by 2100 NY is projected to have around 50 days with temperatures and humidities exceeding the threshold in which people have previously died. For Orlando and Houston, the summer would be one, long, lethal broil.

Mora called the results "mind blowing" and said they underscore the need for global action to curtail emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas.

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Aggressive cutbacks now on emissions could help, though only slightly. The more humid it is, the more lethal heat is - so a warm but very humid day could be as risky as a hot but very dry day.

"Unfortunately there isn't much we can do to make the situation better", Mora said while speaking of the Paris Agreement. "We already know it", Mora said. But by doing nothing, "We can certainly make it a lot worse".

But the most serious risks will be in tropical areas, where temperatures are already closer to the danger threshold and where heat can last more of the year, rather than just during the summer, researchers said.

"With high temperatures and humidities, it takes very little warming for conditions to turn deadly in the tropics", said co-author Iain Caldwell, a UH Manoa post-doctoral researcher, in a statement. Heat stroke, the most extreme and deadly form of hyperthermia, occurs when body temperature rises above 103 degrees Fahrenheit.

Dr. Marshall Shepherd, director of the University of Georgia's Atmospheric Sciences Program, was not involved in the study but agreed with it's findings.

In future, the tropics will be hit hardest, according to the study, which forecasts - year-by-year, for each square kilometre on Earth - the number of "deadly days" under three different carbon pollution scenarios laid out by the UN Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC). And those that can't afford it are likely to get worse heat in the future.

Shepherd also said that we often overlook the impact that cities have on the intensity of heat waves, through the "urban heat island effect". And it's not just heat that is unsafe. "Globally, more people live in cities and that trend will continue".


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