If any place could be described as a living hell, it might be the desert regions of the Middle East. Hot, dry, dusty and arid, these harsh landscapes still manage to support cities populated by tens of millions of people who rely on air conditioning to survive.
Now scientists say that by the end of the century, the effects of climate change will push the region into a zone that surpasses the limits of human survival. They believe that most any outdoor activity will be hazardous.
"This is a significantly more severe type of heat wave than what people have experienced before," said Elfatih Eltahir, professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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Co-author Jeremy Pal, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Loyola Marymount University, said that the 2003 heat wave that killed 15,000 people in Europe "looks like a refreshing day" compared to the future conditions expected in some parts of the Middle East.
The pair's paper is published today in the journal Nature Climate Change and examined when this area would surpass the combined heat and humidity reading, known as wet-bulb temperature, of 35 degrees Celsius (95 Fahrenheit). At this level, the body is unable to cool itself through normal processes of sweating and ventilation because there is too much water vapor in the air.
"If the environment can't take any more water, the sweat on your body no longer evaporates," said Kris Lehnhardt, assistant professor of emergency medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. "Your body doesn't cool anymore."
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Beyond this level of 35 degrees wet-bulb, (conditions of 100 degrees F, with a relative humidity of 80 percent), the body starts to go haywire, Lehnhardt explained.
After symptoms of headache, nausea and dizziness, the first organ affected is your brain. "People will start to have an altered mental status and behave in an unusual manner," said Lenhart, who was not involved in the study. "If it gets really bad, they might have trouble walking, and then become unconscious."
The two climate scientists used global and regional climate models with a very small geographic resolution. That means that they could pinpoint which areas would face the highest temperatures.
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The affected cities include Doha (Qatar), Dharan (Saudi Arabia), Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates), Dubai, Kuwait City (Kuwait), as well as Bandar Abbas and Badar Mahshahr, Iran.
Because the Persian Gulf region lacks cloud cover or greenery, and because the gulf's waters are shallow (which causes surface water to evaporate to the atmosphere), the entire area becomes both hot and humid in the summertime.
"People who have resources will live indoors," said Eltahir.
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But he noted that there are poorer people in places like Yemen, communities that may be forced to migrate elsewhere to avoid the devastating effects of summer heat.
The annual pilgrimage of Muslims to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, will also be endangered because the ceremony takes place outdoors.
Ironically, the Persian Gulf states are also a center for petroleum and gas production, the same industry whose carbon emissions are responsible for the climate change driving the warmer planet, the scientists say.
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Just as people will suffer, so too, will the oil industry. That's because petrochemical workers could find it too hot to maintain or repair production facilities in the searing heat, according to Pal.
Transportation, agriculture, aquaculture, fishing and any other industry that relies on moving things outdoors will also be affected, Pal noted.
But Lehnhardt, the doctor, says that humans living in the Persian Gulf will probably survive somehow, just as they do in places like the Arctic regions of Canada, Greenland or Asia.
"Humans are extremely adaptable and we find ways to survive in environments we shouldn't be in anyway," said Lehnhardt, who also studies the effects of space travel on humans.
"It will lead to a change in the way that homes are designed and cities are designed. It will lead to people making different choice about what they do."