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An adaptability limit to climate change due to heat stress.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America

Adaptation, Biological, Population Dynamics, Humans, Hot Temperature, Global Warming, Animals

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      Abstract

      Despite the uncertainty in future climate-change impacts, it is often assumed that humans would be able to adapt to any possible warming. Here we argue that heat stress imposes a robust upper limit to such adaptation. Peak heat stress, quantified by the wet-bulb temperature T(W), is surprisingly similar across diverse climates today. T(W) never exceeds 31 degrees C. Any exceedence of 35 degrees C for extended periods should induce hyperthermia in humans and other mammals, as dissipation of metabolic heat becomes impossible. While this never happens now, it would begin to occur with global-mean warming of about 7 degrees C, calling the habitability of some regions into question. With 11-12 degrees C warming, such regions would spread to encompass the majority of the human population as currently distributed. Eventual warmings of 12 degrees C are possible from fossil fuel burning. One implication is that recent estimates of the costs of unmitigated climate change are too low unless the range of possible warming can somehow be narrowed. Heat stress also may help explain trends in the mammalian fossil record.

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      Most cited references 26

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      Since 65 million years ago (Ma), Earth's climate has undergone a significant and complex evolution, the finer details of which are now coming to light through investigations of deep-sea sediment cores. This evolution includes gradual trends of warming and cooling driven by tectonic processes on time scales of 10(5) to 10(7) years, rhythmic or periodic cycles driven by orbital processes with 10(4)- to 10(6)-year cyclicity, and rare rapid aberrant shifts and extreme climate transients with durations of 10(3) to 10(5) years. Here, recent progress in defining the evolution of global climate over the Cenozoic Era is reviewed. We focus primarily on the periodic and anomalous components of variability over the early portion of this era, as constrained by the latest generation of deep-sea isotope records. We also consider how this improved perspective has led to the recognition of previously unforeseen mechanisms for altering climate.
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        Climate–Carbon Cycle Feedback Analysis: Results from the C4MIP Model Intercomparison

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          Greenhouse-gas emission targets for limiting global warming to 2 degrees C.

          More than 100 countries have adopted a global warming limit of 2 degrees C or below (relative to pre-industrial levels) as a guiding principle for mitigation efforts to reduce climate change risks, impacts and damages. However, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions corresponding to a specified maximum warming are poorly known owing to uncertainties in the carbon cycle and the climate response. Here we provide a comprehensive probabilistic analysis aimed at quantifying GHG emission budgets for the 2000-50 period that would limit warming throughout the twenty-first century to below 2 degrees C, based on a combination of published distributions of climate system properties and observational constraints. We show that, for the chosen class of emission scenarios, both cumulative emissions up to 2050 and emission levels in 2050 are robust indicators of the probability that twenty-first century warming will not exceed 2 degrees C relative to pre-industrial temperatures. Limiting cumulative CO(2) emissions over 2000-50 to 1,000 Gt CO(2) yields a 25% probability of warming exceeding 2 degrees C-and a limit of 1,440 Gt CO(2) yields a 50% probability-given a representative estimate of the distribution of climate system properties. As known 2000-06 CO(2) emissions were approximately 234 Gt CO(2), less than half the proven economically recoverable oil, gas and coal reserves can still be emitted up to 2050 to achieve such a goal. Recent G8 Communiqués envisage halved global GHG emissions by 2050, for which we estimate a 12-45% probability of exceeding 2 degrees C-assuming 1990 as emission base year and a range of published climate sensitivity distributions. Emissions levels in 2020 are a less robust indicator, but for the scenarios considered, the probability of exceeding 2 degrees C rises to 53-87% if global GHG emissions are still more than 25% above 2000 levels in 2020.
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            Author and article information

            Journal
            20439769
            10.1073/pnas.0913352107
            2906879

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