It could be putting your life in danger, without you even knowing it
The climate has changed and it might be killing us sooner than we originally thought. Trees across my area are covered with patches of dead leaves caused by one of the incredible heatwaves that have scorched vast sections of the United States this summer. For weeks, we experienced record-breaking temperatures caused by a “heat dome.” If the weather is so hot it’s burning trees and destroying roads, what is this doing to people?
The dangers of extreme heat are nothing new. Every year, about 5 million people die from illnesses caused by extreme temperatures. Drinking water during a hot day to avoid dehydration caused by sweating is common knowledge. But what isn’t common knowledge is how one of your body’s natural defense mechanisms from overheating could now be ineffective under certain weather conditions.
What’s The New Danger?
It’s no surprise that our climate has changed to create some inhospitable weather conditions for us now. But along with fires, floods, and storms, we now also have to worry about wet-bulb temperatures during the summertime too. Wet-bulb conditions are created when the outside temperature and humidity are too severe to be compatible with human survival and comfort.
Wet-bulb temperatures are determined by wrapping a thermometer with a wet cloth. When the wet-bulb temperature is compared with the dry-bulb temperature the difference between them is the humidity. This helps scientists determine at which temperature and humidity a person’s sweat becomes ineffective at cooling down their body. If the wet-bulb temperature is close to being about the same as a person’s core temperature the environment becomes more likely to be fatal to them.
When we sweat, our bodies are cooled not from the sweat itself, but through the sweat being evaporated. But under these conditions, the atmosphere is too hot and humid for evaporation alone to be enough to cool your body down. Essentially, during these conditions the outdoors act like a sauna, which isn’t the place you want to be if you’re overheating.
A wet-bulb temperature of 35°C, or about 95°F, is the maximum that the average person’s body can handle. Any higher, and your body won’t be able to cool itself efficiently enough to avoid overheating. The effects of overheating are not immediate, but after several hours, damage to your vital organs, like your heart or brain, will begin if you don’t find a way to cool your body’s temperature.
This Has Happened Before. Why Care Now?
Some of you may be wondering, “What’s the big deal? Heat-related illnesses aren’t anything new.” In a way, you’re right. However, what is new is where and how often these dangerous conditions are happening.
Several climate models predict that the earth will become unsuitable for human survival over the next century. However, recent research is showing that these conditions are already starting to happen, years before expected. These conditions are extremely dangerous for people who work outdoor jobs, where they need to be outdoors for several hours a day.
Occurrences of high heat and humidity have doubled in frequency since 1979 (see below map). Coastal areas that experience intense continental heat and oceans with high surface temperatures are most likely to experience high wet-bulb temperatures. The southeastern United States, especially along the Gulf of Mexico and the eastern seaboard, as well as areas near the Gulf of California, are already starting to experience these conditions. It’s also happening along the coast of the Red Sea, parts of India, Pakistan, northwestern Australia, Mexico, and many other locations globally.
What To Do About This Heat
High wet-bulb temperatures are deadly for everyone, even the healthiest of people. But these conditions will be especially dangerous for young children, the elderly, people with underlying conditions, and pets. It is more important than ever to be aware of the signs and symptoms of overheating and to learn how to prevent it.
Signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses and how to prevent them
I found this great infographic from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, since the CDC is based in the United States, I’ll translate the two things on this infographic that doesn’t transition well for a global audience.
Where it says, “High body temperature (103 degrees or higher),” that is about 39 degrees celsius. And where it says, “Call 911 right away…” just consider that whatever medical emergency number your country uses. Otherwise, everything else applies to everyone.
Some of my favorite childhood memories are when I was doing outdoor activities with my family and friends. Going to the beach, the park, or the fair can become unexpectedly deadly in certain locations around the world if the conditions are right. It is devastating to me that these activities may be too dangerous for my future children. Protect yourself and your loved ones by knowing the signs and symptoms of overheating, taking regular breaks from the heat, and paying attention to the temperature and the humidity.