Seventy-four percent of the world's population will be exposed to deadly heatwaves by 2100 if carbon gas emissions continue to rise at current rates, according to a study published in Nature Climate Change. Even if emissions are aggressively reduced, the percent of the world's human population affected is expected to reach 48 percent.
A team of researchers lead by Mora conducted an extensive review and found over 1,900 cases of locations worldwide where high ambient temperatures have killed people since 1980. By analyzing the climatic conditions of 783 lethal heat episodes for which dates were obtained, researchers identified a threshold beyond which temperatures and humidities become deadly. The area of the planet where such a threshold is crossed for 20 or more days per year has been increasing and is projected to grow even with dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. Currently, about 30% of the world's human population is exposed to such deadly conditions each year.
Numerous examples, such as the 2003 European heatwave that killed approximately 70,000 people, the 2010 Moscow heatwave that killed 10,000 people and the 1995 Chicago heatwave that killed 700 people are staggering examples of the risk to life posed by heatwaves. But beyond these highly cited examples, little was known about how common such killer heatwaves are.
The international group of researchers and students coordinated by the University of Hawaii at Manoa set out to answer that question. From over 30,000 relevant publications, the researchers identified 911 papers with data on 1,949 case studies of cities or regions, where human deaths were associated with high temperatures. From those cases, dates were obtained for 783 lethal heatwaves in 164 cities across 36 countries, with most cases recorded in developed countries at mid-latitudes. Some of the cities that have experienced lethal heatwaves included New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago, Toronto, London, Beijing, Tokyo, Sydney and Sao Paulo.
When analyzing the climatic conditions for those cities, the researchers discovered a common threshold beyond which temperatures and humidities became lethal. In agreement with human thermal physiology, the threshold was such that as relative humidity increases, lower temperatures become lethal.
The study also found that the greatest risk to human life from deadly heat was projected for tropical areas. This is because the tropics are hot and humid year round, whereas for higher latitudes the risk of deadly heat is restricted to summer.