On Monday October 26 2015, US scientists annunciated that, under current trends of climate change, temperatures in the Persian Gulf could be too much for people to cope with by the end of the century. A study published in the journal, Nature, found that severe heat and humidity could force temperatures beyond a “critical threshold,” after which the human body overheats because perspiration (horses sweat, gentlemen perspire, ladies glow) can’t evaporate.
In these circumstances, climate change would leave the cities of Doha and Dubai and areas of Saudi Arabia unbearable sans aircon. This would cause problems for the two million Muslims who pray outdoors from sunrise to sunset outside Mecca in Saudi Arabia as part of the Hajj ritual, which takes place in the summer. It would be as hot as in the desert of Northern Afar, on the African side of the Red Sea, where no people are found.
What could happen
The “wet bulb temperature” (WBT) is the temperature of a thermometer whose bulb is kept damp. This is the best measure of the ability of the human body to accommodate high temperatures, because it shows whether the body can cool off through perspiration. At present, WBTs rarely exceed 88 degrees Fahrenheit anywhere on the planet. A few decades of more of the same would lead WBTs to exceed 95 degrees, when it’s physically impossible for even the fittest human body to cool itself by perspiring, which is fatal after six hours. This condition is known as hyperthermia, a common mis-spelling of “hypothermia,” which is the opposite. The less fit perish even sooner.
Just what’s in store
Europe’s lethal heatwaves of 2003 which led to an estimated 15,000 early deaths could be “refreshing” by comparison, in the words of the study’s co-author, Professor Jeremy Pal of California’s Loyola Marymount University. He and Professor Elhatih Eltahir wrote that “climate change, in the absence of significant [carbon cuts], is likely to severely impact human habitability in the future.”
The Gulf States had a taster of what’s in store in 2015 when they were hit by one of the worst ever heatwaves, with dry bulb – ie conventional – temperatures exceeding 122 degrees and causing a fair number of deaths. A WBT of 95 degrees almost occurred in Bandar Mahshahr in Iran in July. Such heat puts a halt to construction, fishing and support activity on oil and gas rigs. Qatar was accused of allowing South Asian workers constructing stadiums for 2022’s World Cup to expire due to heatstroke. This would come to pass under “business as usual,” with climate change of 39 to 43 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
Oil-blessed countries in the region are generally opposed to action to prevent climate change because it would negatively affect their principal source of revenue. A mere two Gulf states have submitted carbon-cutting assurances to the United Nations before the December deadline. There is perhaps a little poetic justice going on.
Recent analysis has shown that the 150 countries who made carbon-cutting pledges under a new global warming treaty keeping their promises would limit the increase to 37 to 38 degrees and WBT would not be deadly. Professor Eltahir declared, “We would hope that information like this would be helpful in making sure there is interest [in cutting carbon emissions] for the countries in the region.” These states, he added, had “a vital interest” in reducing carbon concentrations.