Relentless heat waves are the new normal

Heat stroke

Imagine a world where it is so hot that you cannot go outside the house or step into the street for more than a few minutes. It is over 40°C outside, the sun is scorching, and it’s muggy and humid. Your body has no means of cooling itself. You are sweating buckets but the perspiration just stays wet and hot on your skin. Your clothes are soaked. Each breath feels like you are breathing in air on fire. Even in the shade, it doesn’t make any difference. You can’t get cool. You can survive for a while in these conditions, but if you don’t get inside an air-conditioned space soon–you will die. It’s that simple.

In the Gulf region of the Middle east, these conditions may soon be the norm. People will spend most of their lives inside buildings. Just like they are in a colony on a different planet. If they go outside they will eventually perish. Not because there is no oxygen—like the movie version. But simply because the human body cannot survive these temperatures when the humidity is so high that it prevents the body from cooling itself by sweating..

Living in the Gulf states even now you spend most of your time in an enclosed and regulated environment where the temperature and humidity are closely controlled. But it is still possible to venture outside in the evening when the temperature cools and the humidity drops.

But the climate is changing.

The mathematical models that simulate the global climate are increasingly accurate and reliable. And they are capable now of modeling smaller regions—like the Gulf states from Kuwait south through the Emirates and down to Yemen, Eritrea and Djibouti. What they show is that it’s going to get very very hot. Hot and humid. If the air is dry, like it often is in Khartoum, evaporative cooling is effective : both as a way of air-conditioning buildings and as a way of keeping the human body alive. But as the warming oceans pump more water vapour into the air and humidity rises, you get to the point where evaporative cooling simply doesn’t work any more. Water cannot evaporate into air which is saturated. Abu Dhabi, Doha, Dubai, Dharan and Bandar Abbas are all threatened by this unbearable heat. But the whole region from Kuwait to Djibouti is going to experience heat stroke temperatures that will be insufferable. At the same time, the region is expected to experience increasing levels of drought.

The technology necessary to keep hundreds of thousands of people living in comfort when air temperatures are more that 40°C during the day and only marginally cooler at night have been around for decades. Air-conditioning is a technically mature industry. It works. But there is just one thing to keep in mind.

It takes a huge amount of energy to keep buildings and the people in them cool and comfortable. It takes electrical power at Gigawatt levels to keep large Gulf cities cool. Where does this electrical power come from ? In the Gulf states it is generated from oil and gas. So this is the deal : the more you need to air-condition these interior spaces, the more electricity you need to generate and supply, and the more waste heat and carbon dioxide you drive into the atmsphere. What’s more, all the heat that’s removed from the inside of buildings is being pumped out into the street. So the external urban environment is even hotter than mean ambient temperatures across the wider region.

Heatwaves have killed thousands of people in Europe in 2005, in Russia in 2008, and then more recently in India and Pakistan. They will beome more common and more widespread ; and they will kill more people.

How the Gulf states adapt to this situation will be interesting to watch. The first response will be to power up the AC. The second more considered response should be to design and build super energy-efficient buldings. But that’s for the people with money. What of the millions of immigrant workers who keep the economy going but who often live in crowded conditions in apartment blocks built to inferior standards. For many of them, it’s going to be a very hard and dangerous life.

Indoor tourism will be the new thing. Come to Dubai for the indoor experience. Everything you need and its under glass. No need to go outside. No, you don’t want to go outside. It really will be like living on another planet. Good practice perhaps—the way things are going ?

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