Record heat has terrifying impacts

Associated Press/ Aaron Chown
A man refreshes his face at a fountain in Trafalgar Square in central London, Tuesday, July 19, 2022. (Aaron Chown/PA via AP)

Sitting in my apartment in a suburb of Los Angeles, I’m the happiest person around — because I have air conditioning. Even in Los Angeles, air conditioning is rare. In the decades past, the cool desert air at night would make the city livable, clean out the smog and bring in the smell of jasmine flowers. Not so much anymore.

Across the northern hemisphere, record-breaking temperatures are hitting places that have never relied on air conditioning, public pools or other methods for temperature regulation. The heat waves predicted far in the future have arrived this week — years ahead of forecast. Heat waves threaten human health in a variety of terrifying ways, as humans rely on overnight cooling periods where temperatures are below 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit). Over the next few days to weeks, emergency services will be stretched as many people without central air and access to cooler spaces begin to suffer. Fires in London have proliferated, threatening air quality as the heat continues to bear down.

This heat wave is a huge strain on humans, but temperatures this high may also have continuing implications for the Earth system — bringing us closer to tipping points.

Emissions are closely following the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) worst-case scenario, and modelers are rapidly assessing out how much carbon will be released by punctuated glacier melt and permafrost thaw in the Arctic.

Biodiversity is also threatened by record temperatures. Smaller mammals and birds, unable to cool themselves in dry areas may not make it through the next few days. With 3 billion breeding birds already lost in just the U.S. and Canada in the past half century, additional heat-driven losses could destabilize ecosystems that rely on these gentle managers. Spreading forest fires burn hotter and worsen air quality with high temperatures, further challenging larger mammal species unable to find adequate water. After these hot fires the forest may not recover — as even the revitalizing aspects of fire are only possible within a specific temperature range. These record-breaking temperatures are a disaster — for humans and the ecosystems in which they live.

So, what is to be done? If we stopped emitting carbon today, 10 years of warming is already dialed in. Every year that we continue to emit carbon from human sources continues to extend that window. In addition, many of our projections don’t include the natural sources of carbon — which once used to store it — that are releasing more rapidly with warming. This includes the permafrost carbon feedback, the Amazon (since last year), and the burning Northern forests.

There has never been a clearer call for immediate action on climate change. Earth systems are overlapping and complex — meaning that as these dynamics of extreme temperature and fires magnify, the impacts to life will worsen. The time to hesitate is through.  

Kimberley R. Miner, Ph.D., is a Climate Change Institute research assistant professor at the University of Maine. She works on the Arctic Methane Project looking at the impacts of climate change in the Arctic. Miner’s opinions are her own and do not reflect those of the University of Maine.

Tags Climate change extreme heat extreme weather Global warming heat Heat wave Kimberley R. Miner summer

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