Scientists have identified the maximum mix of heat and humidity a human body can survive.
Even a healthy young person will die after enduring six hours of 35°C warmth when coupled with 100% humidity, but new research shows that threshold could be significantly lower.
At this point, sweat – the body’s main tool for bringing down its core temperature – no longer evaporates off the skin, eventually leading to heatstroke, organ failure and death.
This critical limit, which occurs at 35°C of what is known as “wet bulb temperature”, has only been breached around a dozen times, mostly in South Asia and the Persian Gulf, according to Dr Colin Raymond of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the United States.
None of those instances lasted more than two hours, meaning there have never been any “mass mortality events” linked to this limit of human survival, said the postdoctoral researcher who led a major study on the subject.
But extreme heat does not need to be anywhere near that level to kill people, and everyone has a different threshold depending on their age, health, and other social and economic factors, experts say.
For example, more than 61,000 people are estimated to have died due to the heat last summer (2022) in Europe, where there is rarely enough humidity to create dangerous wet bulb temperatures.
But as global temperatures rise – last month (July 2023) was confirmed on Aug 8 (2023) as the hottest in recorded history – scientists warn that dangerous wet bulb events will also become more common.
The frequency of such events has at least doubled over the last 40 years, Dr Raymond said, calling the increase a serious hazard of human-caused climate change.
His research projected that wet bulb temperatures will “regularly exceed” 35°C at several points around the world in the coming decades if the world warms 2.5°C above pre-industrial levels.
Although now mostly calculated using heat and humidity readings, wet bulb temperature was originally measured by putting a wet cloth over a thermometer and exposing it to the air.
This allowed it to measure how quickly the water evaporated off the cloth, representing sweat off of skin.
The theorised human survival limit of 35°C wet bulb temperature represents 35°C of dry heat, as well as 100% humidity – or 46°C at 50% humidity.
To test this limit, researchers at Pennsylvania State University (Penn State) in the US measured the core temperatures of young, healthy people inside a heat chamber.
They found that participants reached their “critical environmental limit” – when their body could not stop their core temperature from continuing to rise – at 30.6°C wet bulb temperature, well below the previously-theorised 35°C.
The team estimated that it would take between five to seven hours before such conditions would reach “really, really dangerous core temperatures,” said Dr Daniel Vecellio, who worked on the research as a postdoctoral fellow at Penn State.
Indian Institute of Science Education and Research assistant professor Dr Joy Monteiro, who published a study in the journal Nature last month (July 2023), looking at wet bulb temperatures in South Asia, said that most deadly heatwaves in the region were well below the 35°C wet bulb threshold.
Any such limits on human endurance are “wildly different for different people,” he said.
“We don’t live in a vacuum – especially children,” said Dr Ayesha Kadir, a paediatrician in the United Kingdom and health advisor at the non-governmental organisation Save the Children.
Small children are less able to regulate their body temperature, putting them at greater risk, she said.
Older people, who have fewer sweat glands, are the most vulnerable.
Nearly 90% of the heat-related deaths in Europe last summer were among people aged over 65.
People who have to work outside in soaring temperatures are also more at risk.
Whether or not people can occasionally cool their bodies down, e.g. in air-conditioned spaces, is also a major factor.
Assist Prof Monteiro pointed out that people without access to toilets often drink less water, leading to dehydration.
“Like a lot of impacts of climate change, it is the people who are least able to insulate themselves from these extremes who will be suffering the most,” Dr Raymond said.
His research has shown that El Nino weather phenomena have pushed up wet bulb temperatures in the past.
The first El Nino event in four years is expected to peak towards the end of this year (2023).
Wet bulb temperatures are also closely linked to ocean surface temperatures, he said.
The world’s oceans hit an all-time high temperature last month (July 2023), beating the previous 2016 record, according to the European Union’s climate observatory. – AFP Relaxnews