Sunday, July 28, 2019

Frogs in the Pot

During our first heat wave of 2019, you may have heard terms on the news like “real feel temperature” or “heat index”, both of which are used to express the stress on your body from the combination of heat and humidity.  The temperature in the shade may be 90, but the temperature may feel like 113 when humidity is 80%.

Why are these indices important? If the combination of heat and humidity are high enough, sweat cannot evaporate off your skin. Sweating is how we reduce our body temperature when it exceeds normal. If sweat doesn’t evaporate, you can’t cool off. If you can’t cool off – you will get heatstroke and probably die without medical intervention.

On Saturday, July 20th, during the middle of the heatwave that smothered a large portion of the US, the high temperature in Westborough was 96 in the shade with about 50% humidity, translating into a heat index of 108, clearly in the danger zone.  Another index called the wet bulb temperature, which uses the temperature in the sun, had a value of 92, considered extremely dangerous for any outdoor physical activity in the sun of more than a few minutes duration. 

Bottom line – that heatwave was life threatening.

Only one region on the planet frequently has these deadly heat conditions – the Persian Gulf.

The rest of us just have to cope with “occasional” heat waves. 

“Big deal,” you may say. “It’s summer time, of course there will be heat waves.” That’s true as far as it goes. 

But here’s the problem – the world has had more major heatwaves during the first two decades of this century than in all of the 20th century. Three major heatwaves in the 80's, five in the 1990's, 16 last decade and 34 so far this decade. roughly a doubling every decade.

Mathematically, that rate of increase is called “exponential”: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, 128, 256. . . you get the picture.

So yes, more summer heatwaves, but worse, their frequency is increasing rapidly. They are longer and hotter. Heatwaves are no longer occasional. 

“Big deal,” you may say. “We have air conditioning.”  

I have air conditioning and most of you have it, but billions of people don’t and couldn’t afford it even if it was available.

South Asia just went through a brutal heatwave that lasted a month with temperatures as high as 124, compounded by water shortages due to an inadequate and late monsoon.  Even if the humidity was a bone dry 5%, just being outside in the sun would have led to heatstroke. Think of what we just went through and imagine it lasting a month. Then imagine no AC and little available potable water. Hundreds of millions of Indians and Pakistanis did not imagine it, they lived it.  

By the way - As I write this, Europe is entering its second major heatwave of this summer, which probably will extend above the Arctic Circle.

A recent study calculates that by 2050, Boston will have 11 to 25 days like we just had EVERY SUMMER if current trends continue. And there is no reason to think they won’t as long as we do nothing. 

Al Gore, in his book “An Inconvenient Truth” likened our attitude about climate change using the metaphor of a frog in a pot of slowly heating water. The frog would stay in the pot until it was too late because it would not notice the slow temperature increase, which is actually not true. A real frog would jump out. 

We are not Al Gore’s metaphorical frog, but we are doing a damned good imitation. 

The thing is, the pot is no longer slowly heating. The burner is on high. Why are we still sitting in the pot?

Ignoring rising temperatures is no longer possible, even with air conditioning. 

Climate scientists predicted this outcome decades ago. We can’t say we weren’t warned. We were.

So, the question is: Now what?

The answer: Change course, change the trend. It is within our power to do so. 

All that is lacking is will. 

All that is lacking is leadership.

Published in the Village News, August 2nd, 2019