A few days ago the temperature in southern France hit 114.60 – an all time record. Last week there was an AP story describing record setting temperatures all across Europe causing speed limits on the German autobahns, which typically do not limit vehicle speed. The concern: the high heat could cause the pavement to buckle and become a hazard. With temperatures exceeding 100 degrees, officials closed many schools. Along with a buildup of humidity, officials described the conditions as “potentially lethal” with children, the elderly and people with underlying health conditions at particular risk. Not your ideal “Summer In The City”.
These events in Europe aren’t new or limited to Europe. These stories are now common. The past 5 years have been the hottest ever on earth and 9 of the last 10 years have been the hottest. So how hot can humans survive? Scientists indicate humans will die when exposed to 1400F temperatures for 10 minutes. But far lower temperatures are also lethal. Humidity plays a big factor since we cool off by sweating. The dryer the air, the more easily we can sweat because the air can absorb our moisture. As the humidity increases, the air cannot absorb our moisture and without being able to cool off by sweating, our bodies begin to heat up. Said another way, the lower the humidity, the more we can sweat. But as the humidity rises, the air has more moisture in it, and the body’s ability to sweat decreases. At 50% humidity, and 1150F temperature, a person cannot survive. At 100% humidity, people cannot survive at 950F.
So how much is the earth heating up? I think the chart below illustrates this. It is entitled global “Climate Stripes” and was created by Professor Ed Hawkins at Reading University in Reading, Berkshire, England. His description: “Each line of colored pixels is the temperature record of an individual nation within its region, stacked one atop the other. Blues are cooler years; the reds are warmer. The far left is 1900; the far right is the present day.” The trend is unmistakable. The entire planet has got hotter, increasingly so in recent decades. Scary to think about where we’re headed! A threat to humanity itself?
I recently finished a book entitled Falter by Bill McKibben. McKibben is a founder of the environmental organization 350.org and was among of the first writers to warn of the dangers of global warming. The subtitle of his new book is “Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?” The facts he presents – too many to note here – are compelling and it’s a scary thought. At the end of the book, McKibben offers: “An Outside Chance”, that humanity will not destroy itself – but that hope is guarded and requires a collective and united effort, akin to what the U.S. exhibited during World War II when our industrial capabilities were mobilized to the united purpose of winning the war. It’s an excellent read I highly recommend.
So is the situation we find ourselves in “too hot to handle?” Certainly as temperatures continue to increase, humans are at greater risk of survival. From a society perspective, we have the technological ability to begin making changes that can slow and actually eliminate global warming. But it is not clear that we have the united and collective will to make it happen. When I began posting these blogs at the beginning of the year, I focused on what choices I could make to better protect the planet including learning more about global warming. Besides eliminating red meat and using less electricity, I’ve tried to better understand the condition of our planet, how we arrived here, and what scientists believe needs to change in order to avoid the catastrophic events. I’m convinced the changes we humans need to make will not be easy – especially significant reductions in burning fossil fuels. And the changes will be controversial. My hope, though, is that as more of us understand what’s at stake and what we can collectively do, we will make changes to avoid the end of humanity, as we know it.
Sep 23, 2014 – “We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it.” —President Barack Obama.