Scientists have estimated that by the end of the century some parts of the Persian Gulf will suffer heatwaves that are too hot for the human body to survive.
By 2100, parts of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and others will experience combinations of temperature and humidity which make the deadly 2003 heat wave in Europe “look like a refreshing day”.
A new study in the Nature Climate Change journal presented computer simulations of what will happen to global temperatures if carbon dioxide emissions continue at their current pace.
It predicts a new breed of super-heatwaves affecting the Persian Gulf, the likes of which have not been seen on Earth while humans have been around.
Just how hot?
According to the study, the “heat index” – a measure of what temperature it feels like outside – for Persian Gulf countries could hit between 74C and 77C for at least six hours during the middle of the day.
That’s so hot that the human body is incapable of producing sweat to get rid of heat, making it dangerous even for healthy, fit people to stay outside for any length of time.
The heat index measures the impact of both temperature and humidity on people. With 50 per cent humidity, it would take a base temperature of 45C to reach those sorts of heat index levels. But crank the humidity up to 100 per cent, and it starts to feel like 77C when the mercury hits 35C.
“You can go to a wet sauna and put the temperature up to 35 (Celsius or 95 degrees Fahrenheit) or so. You can bear it for a while, now think of that at an extended exposure” of six or more hours, said study co-author Elfatih Eltahir, an MIT environmental engineering professor.
A mass exodus?
Such temperatures wouldn’t be expected every single day. But according to the simulations, super-heatwaves will come around once a decade or so by the end of the century – and bring mass fatalities.
Not everywhere in the Gulf would be rendered uninhabitable by these events. Developed cities such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha could still function thanks to the widespread availability of air conditioning.
But Eltahir and study co-author Jeremy Pal, of Loyola Marymount University, said that for people living and working outside, or with no air conditioning in their homes, it would be intolerable.
And while such dramatic events could provoke a mass exit from the region, the study authors suggested they would also have major implications for times when people actively flock to the Middle East.
While Mecca won’t be quite as hot, the heat will likely still cause many deaths during the annual hajj pilgrimage, Eltahir said.
Climate change around the world - in pictures
Climate change around the world - in pictures
Calved icebergs from the nearby Twin Glaciers are seen floating on the water in Qaqortoq, Greenland
2/17 Coastal systems and low-lying areas
Flood damaged streets in Queens, New York where the historic boardwalk was washed away due to Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The report predicts that by the end of the century “hundreds of millions of people will be affected by coastal flooding and displaced due to land loss”
3/17 Food security
Widespread drought devastated a corn crop on a farm near Bruceville, Indiana in 2012. The report forecasts that climate change will reduce median yields by up to 2 per cent per decade for the rest of the century
4/17 The global economy
The Evening Standard headline board showing the words 'Black Friday Shares Crash' in London in October 2008 in London. The report warns a global mean temperature increase of 2.5C above pre-industrial levels may lead to global aggregate economic losses of between 0.2 and 2.0 per cent
5/17 Human health
A child suffering from malnutrition and diarrhoea is seen at the Banadir hospital in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu in 2009. Climate change will lead to increases in ill-health in many regions, with examples including an increased likelihood of under-nutrition.
6/17 Human security
A Muslim migrant holds his son as they are detained at the Immigration Police Office on the Thai-Malaysian border in March 2014. The report states that climate change over the 21st century will have a significant impact on forms of migration that compromise human security
7/17 Freshwater resources
A villager walks through a parched paddy in Tianlin county, China in 2012. The report finds that climate change will “reduce renewable surface water and groundwater resources significantly in most dry subtropical regions"
8/17 Unique landscapes
Machair, a grassy coastal habitat found only in north-west Scotland and the west coast of Ireland, is one of the several elements of the UK’s “cultural heritage” that is at risk from climate change
A boat navigates among calved icebergs from the nearby Twin Glaciers in Qaqortoq, Greenland. Boats are a crucial mode of transportation in the country that has few roads. As cities like Miami, New York and other vulnerable spots around the world strategize about how to respond to climate change, many Greenlanders simply do what theyve always done: adapt. 'Were used to change, said Greenlander Pilu Neilsen. 'We learn to adapt to whatever comes. If all the glaciers melt, well just get more land
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is seen after being inaugurated in Longyearbyen, Norway. The 'doomsday' seed vault built to protect millions of food crops from climate change, wars and natural disasters opened deep within an Arctic mountain in the remote Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard
A technician preparing to drain a vast underground lake at the Tete Rousse glacier on the Mont Blanc Alpine mountain, to avert a potentially disatrous flood. Some 65,000 cubic metres (2.3 million cubic feet) of water have gathered in a cavity, dangerously raising the pressure beneath the mountain, a favourite spot for holiday makers in Saint-Gervais-les-Bains
Oroumieh, one of the biggest saltwater lakes on Earth, has shrunk more than 80 percent to 1,000 square kilometers in the past decade. It shrinks mainly because of climate change, expanded irrigation for surrounding farms and the damming of rivers that feed the body of water
Cracked mud is picture at sunrise in the dried shores of Lake Gruyere affected by continous drought near the western Switzerland village of Avry-devant-Pont. A leading climate scientist warned that Europe should take action over increasing drought and floods, stressing that some climate change trends were clear despite variations in predictions
Cattle graze on grassland that remains dry and brown at the height of the rainy season in south of Bakersfield, California. Its third straight year of unprecedented drought, California is experiencing its driest year on record, dating back 119 years, and dating back as far as 500 years, according to some scientists who study tree rings
An aerial view shows tents of flood-displaced people surrounded by water in southern Sehwan town. United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) executive secretary Christiana Figueres met with people displaced by last year's devastating floods. Catastrophic monsoon rains that swept through the country in 2010 and affected some 20 million people, destroyed 1.7 million homes and damaged 5.4 million acres of arable land
An aerial view of flooding in North Wagga Wagga. Climate change is amplifying risks from drought, floods, storm and rising seas, threatening all countries but small island states, poor nations and arid regions in particular, UN experts warned
Damages caused by a landslide on the Pan-American highway near La Moramulca, 55 Km south of Tegucigalpa. International highways have been washed out, villages isolated and thousands of families have lost homes and crops in a region that the United Nations has classified as one of the most affected by climate change
Is it inevitable?
“Some of the scariest prospects from a changing clime involve conditions completely outside the range of human experience,” Carnegie Institute for Science climate researcher Chris Field, who wasn't part of the study, said.
“If we don't limit climate change to avoid extreme heat or mugginess, the people in these regions will likely need to find other places to live.”
Dr. Howard Frumkin, dean of the University of Washington school of public health, who wasn't part of the research, told the Associated Press that the implications of the paper for the Gulf region “are frightening”.
“When the ambient temperatures are extremely high, as projected in this paper, then exposed people can and do die.”
Eltahir said their simulations suggested such intolerable heat levels can be avoided – but only if the world limits future emissions in keeping with pledges made ahead of the climate talks in Paris later this year.
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