Too hot to handle: Study shows Earth's killer heat worsens

Killer heatwaves set for dramatic rise, researchers warn

A tourist cools down at a fountain on a hot summer day in downtown Rome.

Although lethal heatwaves are often mentioned as a key outcome of ongoing climate change, with reports typically referencing past major events such as Chicago in 1995, Paris in 2003, or Moscow in 2010, this study suggests that lethal heat events already occur frequently and in many cities worldwide.

"We are running out of choices for the future", said Camilo Mora, Associate Professor of Geography at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in the United States and lead author of the study. "That's why the government needs to draw up measures to protect marginalized people in case of lethal heatwaves, in addition to reducing green house gas emissions".

Societies will also have to adapt to rising temperatures and the higher risks to human health they bring, but it is the developing countries that are least able to adapt that are likely to be hit the hardest.

Heat didn't used to be a huge problem in India, Pakistan, and other parts of the global south, but heat extremes are now more common and more intense with climate change, says Keller.

"Our study shows, however, that it is warming in the tropics what will pose the greatest risk", said Iain Caldwell, a co-author of the report and a researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

By reviewing papers published between 1980 and 2014, the authors identified 783 cases of excess human mortality associated with heat from 164 cities in 36 countries.

"Over summer we even rescheduled our work timing because no work for three months means no food for our children", he said. Mora explained that not only high rise of temperatures but also moderate rise in temperatures of less than 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) when combined with high humidity can lead to deaths.

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Hyperthermia, the scientific term for high body temperature, can occur both indoors and outdoors.

Currently, about 30 percent of the world's human population is exposed to deadly heatwave conditions each year, Mora said.

Under even the most stringent cuts to emissions - cuts that are virtually unfeasible at present - that proportion would increase to half by 2100.

But they warned this figure could rise to an estimated 74 per cent by the end of the century if carbon emissions continued at high levels. Specifically, Shanghai was projected to have 123 days of deadly heat, Hong Kong 174 days, Tokyo 84 days, NY 53 days, Chicago 68 days, and Sao Paulo 110 days. The increase in deadly heat days for various cities can be seen in an interactive map the researchers put together.

A paper published in the Nature Climate Change journal said the research "underscores the current and increasing threat to human life" by global warming. "You either jump from the 4th floor or you jump from the 8th floor", he said.

The paper said the heatwaves in Moscow, Paris and Chicago were mentioned when discussing how risky 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". It was noted that even slight increases in temperatures and humidity is enough to cause death. In India, where more than 2,400 people died from heat-related illness a year ago, local and state authorities are preparing for another brutally hot summer.

This is the grim picture painted by a new study, which also discovered that up to three in four individuals will be exposed to death risks from heat by 2100 if there will be no dramatic reductions in emissions of Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

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