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Heatwave To Reach Catastrophic Levels By 2050, Experts Warn

Climate predictions show hot and dry days ahead with heat and drought levels expected to rise. The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks report for 2024 has listed worsening heatwaves as part of a trio of climate disasters that are likely to have the biggest impact on human health. By 2050, according to this report, heat waves are forecast to account for nearly 1.6 million deaths. This will mostly play out in the highest-risk areas, including the US, Central America, southern and western Africa, the Middle East, India, South-East Asia and northern Australia, with those regions projected to seee their heat exposure go up 12 to 38 times. Prior to this bleak prediction, the Lancet countdown predicted that the heat will worsen year after year, until by 2050, deaths from

Climate predictions show hot and dry days ahead with heat and drought levels expected to rise.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks report for 2024 has listed worsening heatwaves as part of a trio of climate disasters that are likely to have the biggest impact on human health. By 2050, according to this report, heat waves are forecast to account for nearly 1.6 million deaths. This will mostly play out in the highest-risk areas, including the US, Central America, southern and western Africa, the Middle East, India, South-East Asia and northern Australia, with those regions projected to seee their heat exposure go up 12 to 38 times.

Prior to this bleak prediction, the Lancet countdown predicted that the heat will worsen year after year, until by 2050, deaths from temperatures will multiply to a point that could become catastrophic for the population. The Lancet Countdown is an international research collaboration that independently monitors the changing health impacts of climate change and new opportunities for climate action. This report brought together 114 scientists and health professionals from 52 research institutions and UN agencies globally to offer its most comprehensive assessment to date.

Heat waves begin with a high-pressure system (also known as an anticyclone), where atmospheric pressure above an area builds up. That creates a sinking column of air that compresses, heats up, and oftentimes dries out. The sinking air acts as a cap or heat dome, trapping the latent heat already absorbed by the landscape. The high-pressure system ends up pushing out cooler, fast-moving air currents and squeezes clouds away, a phenomenon which gives the sun an unobstructed line of sight to the ground. Consequently, the ground, whether it is made of soil, sand, concrete, or asphalt, bakes in the sunlight, and in the long days and short nights of summer, heat energy quickly accumulates and temperatures rise.

Heat waves are especially common in areas that are already arid, like the desert Southwest, and at high altitudes where high-pressure systems readily form. Moisture in the ground can blunt the effects of heat, the way evaporating sweat can cool the body. But when there’s little water in the ground, in waterways, and in vegetation, there isn’t as much to soak up the heat besides the air itself. Urban areas worsen this warming. As roads, parking lots, and buildings cover natural landscapes, some cities like Los Angeles and Dallas end up absorbing more heat than their surroundings and can become as much as 20°F warmer. This is a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect

Photo: dics.co

Lancet Countdown further reports that, in 2023, the world experienced the highest global temperatures in more than 100,000 years, and heat records were broken on all continents during 2022. Adults over 65 years of age and infants under 1 year of age , for whom extreme heat can be particularly deadly, they are now exposed to twice as many heat wave days compared to 1986-2005.

Rapidly advancing detection and attribution science shows that more than 60% of extremely high temperature days in 2020 were more than twice as likely due to human-caused climate change. Climate change caused by greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels is poised to make heat waves longer, more intense, and more frequent. Humanity’s hunger for fossil fuels is making individual disasters worse.The burning of fossil fuels adds greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, which traps more heat energy and pushes up average temperatures which, in turn, also pushes up extreme temperatures.

Population-weighted days of exposure to temperatures above the 84th percentile for 1986–2005 (Photo: thelancet-press.com)

Heat waves are increasingly prevalent across the globe, affecting the body’s cooling system. Prolonged periods of heat can lead to a multitude of health issues, including heat exhaustion and electrolyte imbalances. Poorer populations are unfairly affected owing to their limited access to freshwater and air conditioning.

High temperatures increase the likelihood of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. They can raise blood pressure, make certain medications less effective, and worsen neurological conditions like multiple sclerosis. Air pollution also gets worse as rising temperatures increase the rate of formation of hazards like ozone. Such pollutants in turn exacerbate heart and lung problems.

Also, the rise in nighttime temperatures caused by the rising heatwave is particularly worrisome for public health. Without much overnight cooling, people living through a heat wave experience higher cumulative heat stress, increasing risks of problems like dehydration and disrupting sleep, which can further worsen exhaustion and stress from high temperatures.

Elderly people and very young children face some of the highest risks from extreme heat. People with certain health conditions, like high blood pressure and breathing difficulties, also face greater harm. But even otherwise healthy people can suffer from heat waves if they are exposed for long durations, such as those working outdoors in agriculture and construction.

Change in the number of months of extreme drought per year from 1951–60 to 2013–22 (Photo: thelancet-press.com)

The World Economic Forum suggests that two areas need particular attention to make humanity resilient to the rising temperatures. These areas may be either preventing or reducing the health impacts of climate change and the ability to recover quickly from a climate event when it does happen.

This requires a conjoined effort from governments, policymakers, the life sciences industry and the healthcare sector itself. The report further concludes that governments and industry must do their utmost to cut greenhouse gas emissions to prevent a downward spiral in the first place. Increasing energy efficiency can relieve stress on the power grid, and adding power sources that do not require active cooling like wind and solar can boost capacity without adding greenhouse gas emissions.


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