On hot, sticky summer days, one often hears the expression “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.” That isn’t just an old saw; it is a recognition of what might be the most underestimated direct, local danger of climate change. Extreme humid heat events represent a major health risk.
There is an index called “wet-bulb temperature” that is calculated from a combination of temperature and humidity data. The reading, which is taken from a thermometer covered in a wet cloth, is related to how muggy it feels and indicates how effectively a person sheds heat by sweating. When the wet-bulb temperature surpasses 95o Fahrenheit, evaporation of sweat is no longer enough for our bodies to regulate their internal temperature. When people are exposed to these conditions for multiple hours, organ failure and death can result.
Climate models project that combinations of heat and humidity could reach deadly thresholds for anyone spending several hours outdoors by the end of this century.
Dangerous extremes only a few degrees below the human tolerance limits – including in parts of the southwestern and southeastern US – have more than doubled in frequency since 1979. Since then, there have been more than 7,000 occurrences of wet-bulb temperatures above 88o, 250 above 91o, and multiple reading above 95o. Even at lower wet-bulb temperatures around 80o, people with pre-existing health conditions, the elderly, as well as those performing strenuous outdoor labor and athletic activities, are at high risk.
More research is needed on the factors that generate extreme wet-bulb temperatures as well as the potential impacts on energy, food systems, and human security.
Photo, posted April 16, 2012, courtesy of Flickr.