ScienceDaily (May 5, 2010) — Reasonable worst-case scenarios for global warming could lead to deadly temperatures for humans in coming centuries, according to research findings from Purdue University and the University of New South Wales, Australia.
Researchers for the first time have calculated the highest tolerable "wet-bulb" temperature and found that this temperature could be exceeded for the first time in human history in future climate scenarios if greenhouse gas emissions continue at their current rate.
Wet-bulb temperature is equivalent to what is felt when wet skin is exposed to moving air. It includes temperature and atmospheric humidity and is measured by covering a standard thermometer bulb with a wetted cloth and fully ventilating it.
The researchers calculated that humans and most mammals, which have internal body temperatures near 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, will experience a potentially lethal level of heat stress at wet-bulb temperature above 95 degrees sustained for six hours or more, said Matthew Huber, the Purdue professor of earth and atmospheric sciences who co-authored the paper that will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"Although areas of the world regularly see temperatures above 100 degrees, really high wet-bulb temperatures are rare," Huber said. "This is because the hottest areas normally have low humidity, like the 'dry heat' referred to in Arizona. When it is dry, we are able to cool our bodies through perspiration and can remain fairly comfortable. The highest wet-bulb temperatures ever recorded were in places like Saudi Arabia near the coast where winds occasionally bring extremely hot, humid ocean air over hot land leading to unbearably stifling conditions, which fortunately are short-lived today." …
"We found that a warming of 12 degrees Fahrenheit would cause some areas of the world to surpass the wet-bulb temperature limit, and a 21-degree warming would put half of the world's population in an uninhabitable environment," Huber said. "When it comes to evaluating the risk of carbon emissions, such worst-case scenarios need to be taken into account. It's the difference between a game of roulette and playing Russian roulette with a pistol. Sometimes the stakes are too high, even if there is only a small chance of losing."
Steven Sherwood, the professor at the Climate Change Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, Australia, who is the paper's lead author, said prolonged wet-bulb temperatures above 95 degrees would be intolerable after a matter of hours.
"The wet-bulb limit is basically the point at which one would overheat even if they were naked in the shade, soaking wet and standing in front of a large fan," Sherwood said. "Although we are very unlikely to reach such temperatures this century, they could happen in the next." …
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