Health

We are reaching temperatures above which man cannot live, warns expert

Credit: Adobe Stock
Credit: Adobe Stock

A climatologist has warned that the planet is now approaching temperatures which threaten human life.

Professor Szymon Malinowski, director of the Institute of Geophysics at the University of Warsaw, says that 35 degrees Celsius is the highest wet-bulb temperature at which the human body can function, albeit with great effort.

‘At higher levels, it can no longer cool itself down by perspiration. What we have been seeing recently in southern Europe, for example, is beginning to exceed our physical survival capabilities.

‘Humans evolved in relatively low temperatures and are adapted to living in such temperatures. The optimal functioning of our body, including its cooling, is possible up to a temperature of approx. 30 degrees Celsius, the so-called wet bulb; above it gets more and more difficult, and after exceeding 35 degrees it is basically impossible.

‘Thirty-five degrees Celsius is our practical limit, which we are approaching alarmingly quickly in many areas. This is the situation we have already observed over the last few years in many coastal areas of Asia and Africa. We are reaching the wall,’ Malinowski says. 

It is not about the temperature of the air outside the window, the professor points out, but the so-called wet-bulb temperature. It is the lowest temperature to which the body can be cooled by evaporation at a given humidity and pressure. 'The situation can be compared to the radiator in a car. When it stops working, the engine fails. It's the same with us above 35 degrees Celsius. Then strokes happen,’ he says.

'As the temperature and humidity increase, we reach the limit of physiological cooling of our body. Of course, one could say that you can always turn on the AC. But remember that it will only work if we have electricity and technology, and these may also fail,' he adds.

The expert believes that people still do not want to notice the climate change that is happening before their eyes and try to ignore even the clearest signs.

'The fact that we have now started to be interested in high temperatures and talk about them is only because they concern places where Poles go on vacation', the climate scientist says. 'On the other hand, no one in our country talks about record high temperatures, for example in China, where they exceeded 52 degrees Celsius. It is the same with all other phenomena related to climate change, we notice very few of them and I have the impression that it is only in the context of vacation.’

He continues: ‘On a daily basis, we do not think about it or talk about it, because we, Poles, are affected by climate change to a really small extent, this year even the heat wave was not particularly problematic. Maybe we notice drought a bit more, although it also directly affects only some. Most of us have tap water and the only thing that sometimes catches our eye are yellowing lawns. We do not see and do not want to see all these aspects of the unfolding climate disaster.

'We also have record high water temperatures in the Mediterranean and in the North Atlantic. They are more than 1 degree higher than the highest values ever observed. This is a really abrupt change on the observation scale.

'We have always been taught that the Mediterranean climate is an ideal place to live. This assumption is largely outdated and will be even more outdated in the future.’

The same, he believes, applies to many other aspects of today's world; it doesn't look like it did three or even two decades ago.

‘Over the past 30 years, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has increased from 360 to 420 parts per million, when it comes to CO2 alone. The increases in other gases are equally spectacular,’ says Professor Malinowski. 'We have launched this process and are accelerating it all the time. And it has its limit. At some point it will stop accelerating and there are two ways in which this will happen: either we consciously reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or these emissions will fall due to the collapse of human civilization. These are the only alternatives we have. And I would love for us to choose the former.'

An additional issue is what feedback loops, about which we have no idea yet, will be triggered in the climate system with subsequent increases in greenhouse gas concentrations and temperatures, and what further effects of them we will feel.

The director of the Institute of Geophysics at the University of Warsaw points out that what we are now observing, for example, in Italy, but also in many other places around the world, is slowly beginning to exceed our survival capabilities. There are already scientific papers showing that areas with temperatures too high to sustain life will grow. These will be primarily highly populated areas of India, Indonesia, Central Africa, a large part of South America, and the Chinese Plain.

 

'In the current scenario, i.e. if we continue to live and act as we do now, by 2070 many areas on Earth will be uninhabitable for humans, because conditions that make survival difficult, or even impossible, will occur there for many days of the year,’ Malinowski says.

'These are very catastrophic scenarios, but they are real, because so far we are not doing enough to limit global warming,’ he adds. ‘And our physiology will not keep up with climate change. We will not have time to adapt to life in new conditions.’

When such situations occur, we will not be able to count on cooling down with the help of technological solutions, e.g. air conditioning. Malinowski says: ‘Mainly poor areas will be affected first, so certainly not everyone will afford to install air conditioners, secondly, even if we all had them, where would we get the energy to keep them powered, thirdly, our energy systems, all infrastructure, water supply, sewage system, etc. are not adapted to extreme conditions, i.e. very high temperatures and very rapid rainfall. Even now, cities in Poland are not able to discharge of rainwater. And the change is growing.’

He adds that another worrying phenomenon is the rapid rise in sea levels, which also continue to accelerate. 'We rely on a permanent coastline, safe ports, guaranteed maritime supply chains, which is important for the circulation of goods. This may end.

'Of course, I do not know what the future will look like, but I do not think that the solution to the problem of too hot, uninhabitable areas is mass emigration. Rather, small fractions of the endangered populations will emigrate: the richest, most interesting, bravest individuals. This is because people don't like to leave their homes, and because these changes will affect the poorest people the most, those who will not have the means to escape. That is why I think the problem of humanitarian crises will be a little different than we think. It will be a struggle for survival,’ he says. 

PAP - Science in Poland, Katarzyna Czechowicz

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