Extreme heat altering life across the globe

By 2050, nearly half the world may live in areas that have dangerous levels of heat for at least a month, including Miami, Lagos, Nigeria, and Shanghai

By Alissa J. Rubin, Ben Hubbard, Josh Holder, Noah Throop, Emily Rhyne, Jeremy White and James Glanz

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram



Published: Thu 1 Dec 2022, 11:37 PM

On a treeless street under a blazing sun, welder Abbas Abdul Karim labours over a metal bench.

Everyone who lives in Basra, Iraq, reckons with intense heat, but for Karim it is unrelenting. He must do his work during daylight hours to see the iron he deftly bends into swirls for stair railings or welds into door frames.

The heat is so gruelling that he never gets used to it. “I feel it burning into my eyes,” he says.

Working outside in southern Iraq’s scalding summer temperatures isn’t just arduous. It can cause long-term damage to the body.

We know the risk for Karim, because we measured it.

By late morning, the air around Karim reached a heat index of 125 degrees Fahrenheit, a measure of heat and humidity. That created a high risk for heat stroke — especially with his heavy clothing and the direct sun.

Thermal images show additional heat coming off his equipment, making his workspace even more dangerous.

The body’s struggle to sweat and cool itself can cause dehydration and put extra pressure on the kidneys. Over time, this increases the risk of kidney stones and kidney disease.

The heart works harder, too, labouring to pump more blood to the skin and carry heat out of the body.

As Karim worked, our monitor found that his pulse rose, indicating to experts that his body temperature had risen by about 3 degrees, which puts dangerously high stress on the heart.

The blood reaching Karim’s brain was probably reduced for about an hour, as the blood flow was needed elsewhere. He felt unsteady and had to stop. “It feels like the heat is coming out of my head,” he said.

What Karim was experiencing wasn’t a heat wave. It was just an average August day in Basra, a city on the leading edge of climate change — and a glimpse of the future for much of the planet as human carbon emissions warp the climate.

By 2050, nearly half the world may live in areas that have dangerous levels of heat for at least a month, including Miami, Lagos, Nigeria, and Shanghai, according to projections by researchers at Harvard University and the University of Washington.

As we tracked the daily activities of people in Basra and Kuwait City, we documented their heat exposure and how it had transformed their lives.

What we saw laid bare the tremendous gap between those who have the means to protect themselves and those who do not. We also saw a still more unsettling reality: No one can escape debilitating heat entirely.

The heat roused Kadhim Fadhil Enad from sleep. His family’s air conditioner had stopped, and he found himself sweating in the dark.

High temperatures would govern the rest of his day. For him and many others in Basra, the growing heat has turned workdays and sleep schedules upside down.

When Enad, 25, and his brother, Rahda, left for work just after 4am, it felt like 114 degrees outside.

Enad and his brother work in construction as day labourers. In the sweltering summers of southern Iraq, that means racing to finish as much as possible before the sun comes up and ushers in the harshest heat of the day.

Even if they can adapt their schedule, as Enad has, and start their job in the middle of the night, it is still so hot that exhaustion truncates the workday, reducing productivity and chipping away at earnings.

Extreme heat is altering life across the globe, including in Pakistan, India, Tunisia, Mexico, central China and elsewhere. And the more temperatures rise, the greater the number of workers who will be affected.

Already, the effects of extreme heat add up to hundreds of billions of dollars in lost work each year worldwide.

It was 5.30am in Kuwait City when Abdullah Husain, 36, left his apartment to walk his dogs. The sun had barely risen, but the day was already sweltering.

In the summer, he said, he has to get the dogs out early, before the asphalt gets so hot that it will burn their paws.

“Everything after sunrise is hell,” he said.

Husain, an assistant professor of environmental sciences at Kuwait University, lives a very different life from Enad in Basra. But both men’s days are shaped by inexorable heat.

Basra and Kuwait City lie only 80 miles apart and usually have the same weather, with summertime temperatures climbing into the triple digits for weeks on end.

But in other ways, they are worlds apart.

Both places produce oil, but in Kuwait it has produced great wealth and provided citizens with a high standard of living.

This vast economic gap is clear in how well people can protect themselves from the heat, a divide between rich and poor that is increasingly playing out across the globe.

Husain drives to work on broad highways in an air-conditioned car. Enad walks to work on streets lined with swiftly rotting garbage.

Husain teaches at a heavily air-conditioned university. Even working at night, Enad cannot escape his heating world.

Kuwait’s tremendous oil wealth allows it to protect people from the heat — but those protections carry their own cost, crimping culture and lifestyle alike.

When the heat hits, people desert parks and outdoor dining areas. Slides, swings and other playground equipment get so hot that they can burn children’s legs. Most Kuwaitis avoid going outside at all.

That affects their health. Despite the abundance of sun, many Kuwaitis suffer from deficiencies of vitamin D, which the body uses sunlight to produce. Many are also overweight.

By the end of the century, Basra, Kuwait City and many other cities will most likely have many more dangerously hot days per year. Just how many depends on what humans do in the meantime.

According to forecasts by researchers at Harvard University, even if humans significantly reduce carbon emissions, by the year 2100, Kuwait City and Basra will experience months of heat and humidity that feel hotter than 103 degrees, far more than they have had in the past decade.

Estimates long into the future are inexact, but scientists agree that the situation will worsen — and could be catastrophic if emissions aren’t reined in. In that scenario, Miami, for instance, could experience dangerous heat for nearly half the year.

Husain, the professor, said most Kuwaitis don’t think about the relationship between burning fossil fuels and the heat.

“People complain about it, but it is not something that registers action or a change of behaviour,” he said. “They use it to tan or go to the beach, but if it is too hot, they stay home in the air conditioning.”

And since atmospheric emissions don’t respect borders, Kuwait City and Basra will continue to get hotter regardless of what they do, unless major emitters like the US and China change course.

Before Karim, the welder, was born in 1983, Basra was a greener, cooler city.

Groves of date palms softened the temperature, and canals that irrigated Basra’s gardens earned it the nickname “the Venice of the East”.

Many of those stately palm groves were being cut down when Karim was a child, so many fewer remained when Enad, the construction worker, was growing up in the early 2000s. But even then, the city was still dotted with tamarisks, hearty shrubs that erupted yearly with pink and white flowers.

Now, most of those are gone too.

Without them, Basra has become a city of concrete and asphalt, which soaks up the sun and radiates heat long after sundown.

In the future, many people around the world will migrate to escape the heat. But there will most likely be many others who, like Karim and Enad, lack the resources to make it to a greener country. And richer countries that have already tightened their borders will probably make immigration even more difficult as climate pressures increase.

Karim and Enad both dream of living elsewhere.

– This article originally appeared in The New York Times

More news from Offbeat