Forget Calling in Sick—Pretty Soon We’ll All Be Calling in ‘Hot’

A new study explores the link between climate change and human activity in an increasingly warm world.

bright sun
One of these days, it really may just be too darn hot to work. (Ross M Horowitz/Getty)
A former Gourmet staffer, Lawrence enjoys writing about design, food, travel, and lots of other stuff.

Here’s something new to add to the list of problems caused by rising temperatures—a group of U.S. scientists are saying that our planet’s increasingly hot and wet climate has cut the amount of work people can do in the worst heat by almost ten percent in the past six decades, and that loss in labor capacity could double by 2050.

“Because warmer air can hold more moisture than cooler air, there’s more absolute humidity in the atmosphere now than there used to be. And as anyone who has sweltered through a hot, muggy summer knows, it’s more stressful to work through hot months when the humidity is high,” notes Reuters.

“The primary focus of our research was the utility of the metric in characterizing how humans experience the environment to which they are adapted with respect to heat stress, and how that might change with warming,” John Dunne, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton and lead author of the study, tells TakePart.

The current study explored the consequences to human activity under increased climate-driven heat stress through what’s called wet bulb globe temperature (WBGT). “We represent the implications of these changes to WBGT through the reduction in labor capacity based on industrial occupational health thresholds for well-acclimated workers,” says Dunne, “and we bias correct the model to present historical and projected maximum WBGT values under active mitigation and the highest emissions of CO2 out to 2200.”

Dunne notes that the west coast of the United States and Northern Europe are likely to to be affected later than some other regions because both of them are on the eastern side of an ocean. “The prevailing mid-altitude westerlies bring cool ocean air to land in summer and are not subject to an eastern boundary current transporting heat northward,” he says.

The regions that will be affected more quickly are the Arabian Peninsula and Indian subcontinent, then Southeast Asia and Northern Australia, and then Central Africa and Southeast North America.

Dunne also notes that the manner in which populations react is very regionally dependent. “Take the example of heat waves, to which various societies are unevenly adapted,” he says. “The European heat wave of 2003 has been estimated to have caused 70,000 deaths under heat stress levels commonly experienced in the U.S. Gulf Coast.”

“Compare that to the Indian heat wave of that same year in which an estimated 3,000 people died under such extreme heat stress that levels fell to peak European heat wave levels only after the Indian heat wave was over. In places where heat stress is common, people adapt with air conditioning, siestas to avoid the heat of day, thatch huts to promote air circulation, clothing, and many other factors.”

Sounds like adaptation may indeed be the wave of the future.

Have you noticed signs of worker heat stress in your industry? Tell us in the comments.

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