Climate change is often talked about in terms of averages — like the goal set by the Paris Agreement to limit the Earth’s temperature increase to 2 degrees Celsius. What such numbers fail to convey is that climate change will not only increase the world’s average temperature, it will also intensify extreme heat waves that even now are harming people and wildlife, according to a recent review paper by San Francisco State University Professor of Biology Jonathon Stillman.
“Summertime is quickly becoming a deadly season for life on Earth,” he wrote in the paper.
Heat waves have already produced striking images of mass mortality in animals, from the bleached skeletons of corals across swaths of the Great Barrier Reef to the deaths of horses during Australian summers. Heat stroke from such extreme events is also a present danger for people, especially the elderly, albeit in a less obvious form. “Human mortality is different in that a lot of it is not visible in that way. It’s happening in homes or in doctors’ offices, but it’s striking all the same,” Stillman explained. For instance, a 2003 heat wave in Europe killed more than 70,000 people across the continent.
To get a comprehensive view of the effects of future heat waves on humans and wildlife, Stillman gathered information from over 140 scientific studies on the topic. He published the resulting review in the journal Physiology last month.