Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Heat, Humidity Combine to Threaten Millions in Future

Women in India try to keep cool during a stifling heat wave in May 2015. (Credit: Zuma Press) Click to Enlarge.
In a warmer future, it won’t just be the heat that gets us, but the humidity.

By later this century, parts of the world where the population is expected to rise the most will experience an increase in the worst heat events — those where sky-high temperatures combine with oppressive humidity to hit the limits of the human capacity to cope, scientists announced here Monday at the annual conference of the American Geophysical Union.

Hundreds of millions of people could be exposed to this extreme heat stress several times per year in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia and especially India, the researchers found.

Such events make it “hard for society to function,” and point to the urgent need for nations to adapt, Ethan Coffel, a PhD student at Columbia University who spearheaded the work, said.

Human Heat Limits
More frequent and more severe heat waves are one of the clearest results of the warming of the planet driven by the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.  Studies have already shown that recent heat waves have been made more likely by climate change.

When the mercury skyrockets, our bodies have a coping mechanism: the evaporation of sweat, which helps keep us comfortable.  But, as anyone who has been in Florida in August knows, when high humidity accompanies heat, it can hamper that built-in cooling system.

“As the humidity climbs, you lose the ability to cool yourself — pretty quickly, actually,” Coffel said.  Young children, the elderly and the infirm are particularly vulnerable to these heat stress events.

Read more at Heat, Humidity Combine to Threaten Millions in Future

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