How solar heat drives rapid melting of parts of Antarctica’s largest ice shelf



Scientists measured the thickness and basal melt of the Ross Ice Shelf.
Supplied, CC BY-ND

Craig Stewart, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research

The ocean that surrounds Antarctica plays a crucial role in regulating the mass balance of the continent’s ice cover. We now know that the thinning of ice that affects nearly a quarter of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is clearly linked to the ocean.

The connection between the Southern Ocean and Antarctica’s ice sheet lies in ice shelves – massive slabs of glacial ice, many hundreds of metres thick, that float on the ocean. Ice shelves grind against coastlines and islands and buttress the outflow of grounded ice. When the ocean erodes ice shelves from below, this buttressing action is reduced.

While some ice shelves are thinning rapidly, others remain stable, and the key to understanding these differences lies within the hidden oceans beneath ice shelves. Our recently published research explores the ocean processes that drive melting of the world’s largest ice shelf. It shows that a frequently overlooked process is driving rapid melting of a key part of the shelf.




Read more:
Ice melt in Greenland and Antarctica predicted to bring more frequent extreme weather


Ocean fingerprints on ice sheet melt

Rapid ice loss from Antarctica is frequently linked to Circumpolar Deep Water (CDW). This relatively warm (+1C) and salty water mass, which is found at depths below 300 metres around Antarctica, can drive rapid melting. For example, in the south-east Pacific, along West Antarctica’s Amundsen Sea coast, CDW crosses the continental shelf in deep channels and enters ice shelf cavities, driving rapid melting and thinning.

Interestingly, not all ice shelves are melting quickly. The largest ice shelves, including the vast Ross and Filchner-Ronne ice shelves, appear close to equilibrium. They are largely isolated from CDW by the cold waters that surround them.

The satellite image shows that strong offshore winds drive sea ice away from the north-western Ross Ice Shelf, exposing the dark ocean surface. Solar heating warms the water enough to drive melting. Figure modified from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-019-0356-0.
Supplied, CC BY-ND

The contrasting effects of CDW and cold shelf waters, combined with their distribution, explain much of the variability in the melting we observe around Antarctica today. But despite ongoing efforts to probe the ice shelf cavities, these hidden seas remain among the least explored parts of Earth’s oceans.




Read more:
Climate scientists explore hidden ocean beneath Antarctica’s largest ice shelf


It is within this context that our research explores a new and hard-won dataset of oceanographic observations and melt rates from the world’s largest ice shelf.

Beneath the Ross Ice Shelf

In 2011, we used a 260 metre deep borehole that had been melted through the north-western corner of the Ross Ice Shelf, seven kilometres from the open ocean, to deploy instruments that monitor ocean conditions and melt rates beneath the ice. The instruments remained in place for four years.

The observations showed that far from being a quiet back water, conditions beneath the ice shelf are constantly changing. Water temperature, salinity and currents follow a strong seasonal cycle, which suggests that warm surface water from north of the ice front is drawn southward into the cavity during summer.

Melt rates at the mooring site average 1.8 metres per year. While this rate is much lower than ice shelves impacted by warm CDW, it is ten times higher than the average rate for the Ross Ice Shelf. Strong seasonal variability in the melt rate suggests that this melting hotspot is linked to the summer inflow.

Summer sea surface temperature surrounding Antarctica (a) and in the Ross Sea (b) showing the strong seasonal warming within the Ross Sea polynya. Figure modified from https://www.nature.com/articles/s41561-019-0356-0.
Supplied, CC BY-ND

To assess the scale of this effect, we used a high-precision radar to map basal melt rates across a region of about 8,000 square kilometres around the mooring site. Careful observations at around 80 sites allowed us to measure the vertical movement of the ice base and internal layers within the ice shelf over a one-year interval. We could then determine how much of the thinning was caused by basal melting.

Melting was fastest near the ice front where we observed short-term melt rates of up to 15 centimetres per day – several orders of magnitude higher than the ice shelf average rate. Melt rates reduced with distance from the ice front, but rapid melting extended far beyond the mooring site. Melting from the survey region accounted for some 20% of the total from the entire ice shelf.

The bigger picture

Why is this region of the shelf melting so much more quickly than elsewhere? As is so often the case in the ocean, it appears that winds play a key role.

During winter and spring, strong katabatic winds sweep across the western Ross Ice Shelf and drive sea ice from the coast. This leads to the formation of an area that is free of sea ice, a polynya, where the ocean is exposed to the atmosphere. During winter, this area of open ocean cools rapidly and sea ice grows. But during spring and summer, the dark ocean surface absorbs heat from the sun and warms, forming a warm surface pool with enough heat to drive the observed melting.

Although the melt rates we observe are far lower than those seen on ice shelves influenced by CDW, the observations suggest that for the Ross Ice Shelf, surface heat is important.

Given this heat is closely linked to surface climate, it is likely that the predicted reductions in sea ice within the coming century will increase basal melt rates. While the rapid melting we observed is currently balanced by ice inflow, glacier models show that this is a structurally critical region where the ice shelf is pinned against Ross Island. Any increase in melt rates could reduce buttressing from Ross Island, increasing the discharge of land-based ice, and ultimately add to sea levels.

While there is still much to learn about these processes, and further surprises are certain, one thing is clear. The ocean plays a key role in the dynamics of Antarctica’s ice sheet and to understand the stability of the ice sheet we must look to the ocean.The Conversation

Craig Stewart, Marine Physicist, National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Advertisements

Curious Kids: how can penguins stay warm in the freezing cold waters of Antarctica?



Emperor penguins have uniquely adapted to their Antarctic home.
Christopher Michel/flickr, CC BY-SA

Jane Younger, University of Bath

Curious Kids is a series for children. If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, send it to curiouskids@theconversation.edu.au You might also like the podcast Imagine This, a co-production between ABC KIDS listen and The Conversation, based on Curious Kids.


How can penguins and polar bears stay warm in the freezing cold waters of Antarctica? – Riley, age 8, Clarksville, Tennessee USA.


Thanks for your question, Riley. The first thing I should probably say is that while a lot of people think polar bears and penguins live together, in fact they live at opposite ends of the Earth. Polar bears live in the northern hemisphere and penguins live in the southern hemisphere.

I’m a penguin researcher so I’m going to explain here how penguins can stay warm in Antarctica.

There are four species of penguins that live in Antarctica: emperors, gentoos, chinstraps, and Adélies.

All these penguins have special adaptations to keep them warm, but emperor penguins might be the most extreme birds in the world. These amazing animals dive up to 500 metres
below the surface of the ocean to catch their prey, withstanding crushing pressures and water temperatures as low as -1.8℃.

But their most incredible feat takes place not in the ocean, but on the sea ice above it.

Surviving on the ice

Emperor penguin chicks must hatch in spring so they can be ready to go to sea during the warmest time of year. For this timing to work, emperors gather in large groups on sea ice to begin their breeding in April, lay their eggs in May, and then the males protect the eggs for four months throughout the harsh Antarctic winter.

It’s dark, windy, and cold. Air temperatures regularly fall below -30℃, and occasionally drop to -60℃ during blizzards. These temperatures could easily kill a human in minutes. But emperor penguins endure it, to give their chicks the best start in life.

Emperor penguins have special physical and behavioural adaptations to survive temperatures that could easily kill a human in minutes.
Flickr/Ian Duffy, CC BY

A body ‘too big’ for its head

Emperor penguins have four layers of overlapping feathers that provide excellent protection from wind, and thick layers of fat that trap heat inside the body.

Emperor penguins have a small beak, small flippers, and small legs and feet. This way, less heat can be lost from places furthest from their main body.
Anne Fröhlich/flickr, CC BY-ND

Have you ever noticed that an emperor penguin’s body looks too big for its head and feet? This is another adaptation to keep them warm.

The first place that you feel cold is your hands and feet, because these parts are furthest from your main body and so lose heat easily.

This is the same for penguins, so they have evolved a small beak, small flippers, and small legs and feet, so that less heat can be lost from these areas.

They also have specially arranged veins and arteries in these body parts, which helps recycle their body warmth. For example, in their nasal passages (inside their noses), blood vessels are arranged so they can regain most of the heat that would be lost by breathing.




Read more:
Curious Kids: Why do sea otters clap?


Huddle time

Male emperor penguins gather close together in big groups called “huddles” to minimise how much of their body surface is exposed to cold air while they are incubating eggs.

This can cut heat loss in half and keep penguins’ core temperature at about 37℃ even while the air outside the huddle is below -30℃.

The biggest huddles ever observed had about 5,000 penguins! Penguins take turns to be on the outer edge of the huddle, protecting those on the inside from the wind.

Incredibly, during this four-month period of egg incubation the male penguins don’t eat anything and must rely on their existing fat stores. This long fast would be impossible unless they worked together.

The biggest huddles ever observed had about 5,000 penguins!
Flickr/Ars Electronica, CC BY

Changing habitats

Emperor penguins are uniquely adapted to their Antarctic home. As temperatures rise and sea ice disappears, emperors will face new challenges. If it becomes too warm they will get heat-stressed, and if the sea ice vanishes they will have nowhere to breed. Sadly, these incredible animals may face extinction in the future. The best thing we can do for emperor penguins is to take action on climate change now.




Read more:
Curious Kids: is water blue or is it just reflecting off the sky?


Hello, curious kids! Have you got a question you’d like an expert to answer? Ask an adult to send your question to curiouskids@theconversation.edu.au Please tell us your name, age and which city you live in. We won’t be able to answer every question but we will do our best.The Conversation

Jane Younger, Research Fellow, University of Bath

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Suffering in the heat: the rise in marine heatwaves is harming ocean species



File 20190303 110119 1w5b8am.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Recent marine heatwaves have devastated crucial coastal habitats, including kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs.
Dan Smale, Author provided

Dan Smale, Marine Biological Association and Thomas Wernberg, University of Western Australia

In the midst of a raging heatwave, most people think of the ocean as a nice place to cool down. But heatwaves can strike in the ocean as well as on land. And when they do, marine organisms of all kinds – plankton, seaweed, corals, snails, fish, birds and mammals – also feel the wrath of soaring temperatures.

Our new research, published today in Nature Climate Change, makes abundantly clear the destructive force of marine heatwaves. We compared the effects on ecosystems of eight marine heatwaves from around the world, including four El Niño events (1982-83, 1986-87, 1991-92, 1997-98), three extreme heat events in the Mediterranean Sea (1999, 2003, 2006) and one in Western Australia in 2011. We found that these events can significantly damage the health of corals, kelps and seagrasses.

This is concerning, because these species form the foundation of many ecosystems, from the tropics to polar waters. Thousands of other species – not to mention a wealth of human activities – depend on them.

We identified southeastern Australia, southeast Asia, northwestern Africa, Europe and eastern Canada as the places where marine species are most at risk of extreme heat in the future.




Read more:
Marine heatwaves are getting hotter, lasting longer and doing more damage


Marine heatwaves are defined as periods of five days or more during which ocean temperatures are unusually high, compared with the long-term average for any given place. Just like their counterparts on land, marine heatwaves have been getting more frequent, hotter and longer in recent decades. Globally, there were 54% more heatwave days per year between 1987 and 2016 than in 1925–54.

Although the heatwaves we studied varied widely in their maximum intensity and duration, we found that all of them had negative impacts on a broad range of different types of marine species.

Marine heatwaves in tropical regions have caused widespread coral bleaching.

Humans also depend on these species, either directly or indirectly, because they underpin a wealth of ecological goods and services. For example, many marine ecosystems support commercial and recreational fisheries, contribute to carbon storage and nutrient cycling, offer venues for tourism and recreation, or are culturally or scientifically significant.




Read more:
Australia’s ‘other’ reef is worth more than $10 billion a year – but have you heard of it?


.

Marine heatwaves have had negative impacts on virtually all these “ecosystem services”. For example, seagrass meadows in the Mediterranean Sea, which store significant amounts of carbon, are harmed by extreme temperatures recorded during marine heatwaves. In the summers of both 2003 and 2006, marine heatwaves led to widespread seagrass deaths.




Read more:
Seagrass, protector of shipwrecks and buried treasure


The marine heatwaves off the west coast of Australia in 2011 and northeast America in 2012 led to dramatic changes in the regionally important abalone and lobster fisheries, respectively. Several marine heatwaves associated with El Niño events caused widespread coral bleaching with consequences for biodiversity, fisheries, coastal erosion and tourism.

Mass die-offs of finfish and shellfish have been recorded during marine heatwaves, with major consequences for regional fishing industries.

All evidence suggests that marine heatwaves are linked to human mediated climate change and will continue to intensify with ongoing global warming. The impacts can only be minimised by combining rapid, meaningful reductions in greenhouse emissions with a more adaptable and pragmatic approach to the management of marine ecosystems.The Conversation

Dan Smale, Research Fellow in Marine Ecology, Marine Biological Association and Thomas Wernberg, Associate professor, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

How do we save ageing Australians from the heat? Greening our cities is a good start



File 20190227 150698 rrobo4.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A shade tree makes a big difference to the comfort of this couple.
Nancie Lee/Shutterstock

Claudia Baldwin, University of the Sunshine Coast; Jason Byrne, University of Tasmania, and Tony Matthews, Griffith University

Heatwaves have killed more Australians than road accidents, fires, floods and all other natural disasters combined. Although recent research shows extreme cold is a worry in some parts of Australia, our hottest summer on record points to more heat-related deaths to come. The record heatwaves have highlighted the damaging effects of heat stress. Understandably, it’s becoming a major public health challenge.




Read more:
2018-19 was Australia’s hottest summer on record, with a warm autumn likely too


The risk of extreme heat events and the adverse impacts on older people has been extensively discussed in research. Remarkably, very little attention has been paid to the role of urban greenery in reducing heat stress for seniors.

Older people are particularly at risk of heat stress. Pre-existing medical conditions and limited mobility increase their vulnerability. Deaths of older people increase during extreme heat events.

The physical features of urban areas shape the capacity of older adults to engage in many activities when it’s hot. These include vegetation volume and coverage, thermal design, and the extent of shading in public areas and walkways. Increasing urban greenery may offer a way to improve older people’s comfort and social experience.




Read more:
Building cool cities for a hot future


Ageing adds urgency to greening

It is expected 20% of the global population will be older than 60 by 2050. The figure for Australia is even higher, at 23%. This means that by 2050 around one in four Australians will be more vulnerable to extreme heat.

Older people are more vulnerable to heat stress.
PorporLing/Shutterstock

Climate change may make the problem worse by fuelling even more extreme heat events.

Planning our urban centres to meet the needs of a rapidly ageing population is a matter of urgency. Urban greening to reduce their vulnerability to heat stress should be central to this agenda. It can also improve people’s quality of life, reduce social isolation and loneliness, and ease the burden on health systems.

An important task is matching the design of communities with the needs of an ageing population. Where older adults live and the quality of their local areas strongly influence their lived experiences. Yet recent research found the experiences of seniors were often not accounted for in research on neighbourhood design.




Read more:
Eight simple changes to our neighbourhoods can help us age well


What about aged care?

People face choices about where they live as they age. The common choices are to “age in place” or to move into aged care.

Ageing in place includes living in one’s own home or co-habiting with relatives or friends. Around 90% of Australian seniors choose this option, with the remainder opting for aged-care facilities.

If one in ten Australian seniors live in aged-care facilities, it is clear these should be designed to minimise heat stress. This isn’t just good for residents; it may also benefit operators by lowering health-care and electricity costs.

While these facilities are purpose-built for older people, many in Australia were built well over a decade ago, when heat stress was not such a large concern. Many more facilities are being built now and will be into the future. Yet it is uncertain whether they are being actively designed to reduce the impacts of heat.




Read more:
Australian cities are lagging behind in greening up their buildings


What has our research found?

We recently conducted a focus group to investigate this issue. Participants were senior managers from four large corporate providers of aged care in Australia. We investigated if and how providers try to minimise heat stress through design. We also sought to understand the rationales used to support these design approaches.

Several participants reported on refurbishments that they expect will have cooling effects. Cited design approaches included green roofs and walls, as well as sensory gardens. Other expected benefits included reducing anxiety and improving the mental health of residents.

The fact that single design interventions could produce multiple benefits improved the potential for corporate buy-in. Participants expected that increasing green space and green cover would give their facilities a competitive advantage by attracting more clients and providing a better working environment for staff.

Participants also reported on challenges of including greening in their projects. For example, the benefits of trees were weighed against concerns about roots disrupting footpaths and becoming trip hazards. Species selection was another concern, with fears that inappropriate plants could die and undermine support for greening programs.

Our research suggests that more can be done to make cities hospitable for older people, especially during extreme heat. Urban greening is a start. Encouraging aged-care providers to adopt green infrastructure will have benefits. But we should also consider reforms to planning systems and urban design to better protect older people who choose to age in place.




Read more:
If planners understand it’s cool to green cities, what’s stopping them?


The Conversation


Claudia Baldwin, Associate Professor, Urban Design and Town Planning, Sustainability Research Centre, University of the Sunshine Coast; Jason Byrne, Professor of Human Geography and Planning, University of Tasmania, and Tony Matthews, Senior Lecturer in Urban and Environmental Planning, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s 2018 in weather: drought, heat and fire


File 20190109 32145 fgmsp9.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Queensland’s ‘unprecedented’ bushfires were part of a year of extremes.
RACQ CQ/AAP

Karl Braganza, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Last year was a time of exceptional weather and record-breaking heat according to the Bureau of Meteorology’s annual climate statement, which was released last night.

The Bureau issued four Special Climate Statements relating to “extreme” and “abnormal” heat, and reported a number of broken climate records.

One of the headline stories for the year was drought across eastern Australia — centred on New South Wales, but also affecting Victoria, eastern South Australia and southern Queensland.


Bureau of Meteorology

With the whole of NSW declared in drought during the latter half of 2018, this drought will be recorded as one of the more significant in Australia’s history, ranking alongside the Millennium, 1960s, World War Two and Federation Droughts. Of those historic droughts, only the Millennium Drought saw similar, accompanying high temperatures.

The below-average rainfall has persisted for around two years across much of NSW and adjacent regions. The drought conditions were particularly severe in the recent spring period, with low rainfall, persistently high temperatures, and record high evaporation.

This exceptionally dry period was influenced by sea surface temperatures to the west of the continent. Perhaps fortuitously, a developing El Niño in the Pacific Ocean failed to mature in the second half of the year. An El Niño would have typically exerted a further drying influence on eastern Australia.




Read more:
Australia moves to El Niño alert and the drought is likely to continue


The dry conditions in eastern states were severe enough to see Australia record its lowest September rainfall on record, and the second-lowest on record for any month — behind April 1902, during the prolonged Federation Drought. Over 2018, Australia’s annual rainfall was 11% below average, and the lowest recorded since 2005, during the Millennium Drought.

In contrast, above-average rainfall was recorded across parts of the tropical north, and most significantly in the Kimberley, consistent with recent trends of increasing rainfall in that region.

The drought conditions were exacerbated by record or near-record temperatures across many parts of the country. It was Australia’s third warmest year on record, behind 2013 and 2005. Daytime maximum temperatures were the warmest on record for NSW and Victoria, and second-warmest for South Australia, the Northern Territory and Australia as a whole.


Bureau of Meteorology

Persistent dry conditions through winter are typically associated with low soil moisture and heatwaves in the following spring and summer, and 2018 followed this pattern — with the added contribution of a warming climate.

The year ended with some record-breaking heat events. Perhaps the most significant of these was the extreme heat along the central and northern Queensland coast in late November and early December, which saw maximum daytime temperatures of 42.6 °C in Cairns and 44.9 °C in Proserpine on the 26th of November.

These temperatures, combined with persistent dry conditions in the preceding months, saw catastrophic fire weather and bushfires along 600km of the Queensland coast, an event that fire agencies have called unprecedented for the state.




Read more:
Sydney storms could be making the Queensland fires worse


The year ended with a burst of heat over the Christmas-New Year period, with temperatures at least 10 degrees warmer than average across southern South Australia, most of Victoria and southern NSW, leading to Australia’s warmest December on record.


Subscribe to receive Bureau Climate Information emails.The Conversation

Karl Braganza, Climate Scientist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Summer forecast: scorching heat and heightened bushfire risk


Catherine Ganter, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Large parts of Australia are facing a hotter and drier summer than average, according to the Bureau of Meteorology’s summer outlook.

Drier than average conditions are likely for much of northern Australia. Most of the country has at least an 80% chance of experiencing warmer than average day and night-time temperatures.

The threat of bushfire will remain high, with few signs of the sustained rain needed to reduce fire risk or make a significant dent in the ongoing drought.

Expect extreme heat

Large parts of Western Australia, most of Queensland and the Top End of the Northern Territory are expected to be drier than usual. Further south, the rest of the country shows no strong push towards a wetter or drier than average summer, which is a change for parts of the southeast compared to recent months.


Bureau of Meteorology

Queensland has already seen some extraordinary record-breaking heat in recent days, with summer yet to truly begin. With the summer outlook predicting warmer days and nights, combined with recent dry conditions and our long-term trend of increasing temperatures, some extreme highs are likely this summer.


Bureau of Meteorology

All of this means above-normal bushfire potential in eastern Australia, across New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. The bushfire outlook, also released today, notes that rain in areas of eastern Australia during spring, while welcome, was not enough to recover from the long-term dry conditions. The current wet conditions across parts of coastal New South Wales will help, but it will not take long once hot and dry conditions return for vegetation to dry out.




Read more:
Sydney storms could be making the Queensland fires worse


What about El Niño?

The Bureau is currently at El Niño ALERT, which means a roughly 70% chance of El Niño developing this season.




Read more:
Australia moves to El Niño alert and the drought is likely to continue


However, not all the ducks are lined up. While ocean temperatures have already warmed to El Niño levels, to declare a proper “event” there must also be a corresponding response in the atmosphere to reinforce the ocean – this hasn’t happened yet.

That said, climate models expect this event to arrive in the coming months. The outlook has factored in that chance, and the conditions predicted are largely consistent with what we would expect during El Niño. In summer, this includes drier weather in parts of northern Australia, and warmer summer days.

Once an El Niño is in place, weather systems across southern Australia tend to be more mobile. This can mean shorter but more intense heatwaves in Victoria and southern South Australia. However, in New South Wales and Queensland, El Niño is associated with both longer and more intense heat waves.

The exact reason why the states are affected differently is complicated, but relates to the fast-moving cold fronts and troughs that sweep through Victoria and South Australia in the summertime, creating cool changes. These weather systems don’t influence areas further north so when hot air arrives, it takes longer to clear.




Read more:
Drought, wind and heat: when fire seasons start earlier and last longer


The heavy rains seen in parts of eastern Australia in October and November have provided some welcome short-term relief to drought-stricken farmers, but longer-term rainfall relief has not arrived yet. If El Niño arrives, this widespread relief may only be on the cards in autumn.The Conversation

Catherine Ganter, Senior Climatologist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Health Check: how can extreme heat lead to death?



File 20180208 180836 tz7qas.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Our climate is going to get warmer, and we need to protect ourselves from heat-related illness.
from shutterstock.com

David Shearman, University of Adelaide

Our climate is becoming hotter. This is our reality. Extreme heat is already responsible for hundreds of deaths every year. It’s a big environmental killer, and deaths from heatwaves in Australian cities are expected to double in the next 40 years.

Those most at risk are the elderly, people with chronic illness, those living in socioeconomic disadvantage, outdoor workers, and athletes who play their sport in brutally high temperatures. But extreme heat can affect anyone at any age.

So, what happens in our body during times of extreme heat? And how can it lead to fatal consequences?




Read more:
Australia’s ‘deadliest natural hazard’: what’s your heatwave plan?


How we lose and gain heat

Our core body temperature sits at around 37℃. If it rises or falls, a range of very efficient physiological mechanisms come into play. In good health, our body can usually cope well with deviations of about 3.5℃, but beyond that the body begins to show signs of distress.

In hot weather, the body maintains core temperature by losing heat in several ways. One is to transfer it to a cooler environment, such as surrounding air or water, through our skin. But if the surrounding temperature is the same or higher than the skin (greater than 35-37℃) the effectiveness of this mechanism is markedly reduced.

Blood vessels supplying blood to the skin dilate. This allows more warm blood to flow near the surface of the skin, where the heat can be lost to the air. That’s why some people’s skin looks redder in hot environments.

One way the body loses heat is by directly transferring it to a cooler environment.
from shutterstock.com

Evaporation (or sweat) is another way to lose heat from the body. If there is enough airflow and humidity is low enough, we can lose large amounts of heat through sweat. But on humid days, the rate of evaporation is reduced, as the air cannot absorb so much if it is already saturated with water vapour.

We can also reduce our heat production by resting. About 80% of the energy produced by working muscles is heat, so any activity will increase the amount of heat the body has to lose. This is why athletes and outdoor manual workers are at particular risk when performing at high levels of physical activity.




Read more:
Health Check: do cold showers cool you down?


What happens if the body can’t lose heat

Heat stress describes a spectrum of heat-related disorders that occur when the body fails to lose heat to maintain core temperature. Heat stress ranges from heat cramps to heat exhaustion (pale, sweating, dizzy and fainting). If the core temperature rises above 40.5℃, it can lead to heatstroke, which is a medical emergency, can occur suddenly and often kills.

The hypothalamus works as the body’s thermostat.
from shutterstock.com

Heatstroke is caused by a failure of the hypothalamus, the region of the brain that works as our thermostat and co-ordinates our physiological response to excessive heat. It’s what leads to mechanisms like sweating and rapid breathing, dilated veins and increased blood flow to the skin. So, when the hypothalamus fails, so does our ability to sweat and lose heat in other ways.

At temperatures higher than 41.5℃, convulsions are common. Irreversible brain damage can occur at temperatures above 42.5℃. Patients with heatstroke can show neurological signs such as lack of co-ordination, confusion, seizures and loss of consciousness.




Read more:
Health Check: how to exercise safely in the heat


When sweating stops, the skin may become hot and dry, heart rate and breathing increase and blood pressure is low. Cells and nerves in the body become damaged. Liver damage is also common, but may not manifest for several days. The kidneys stop working, normal blood clotting is impaired, the heart muscle can be damaged and skeletal muscles start breaking down.

Essentially, this is what we describe as multi-organ failure. People with heatstroke can die within a few hours, or several days or even weeks later from organ failure.

Protecting yourself

Heatstroke could be “exertional”, as with athletes, or “classic”, which occurs in patients with impaired thermostatic responses, as a result of age, illness or medications.

Heatstroke can be caused by exertion, such as with athletes putting their body through stress in extreme temperatures.
from shutterstock.com

Much of the increase in deaths during hotter temperatures occurs in older patients with a chronic illness. This is because they may have a poorly functioning central nervous system that cannot orchestrate the physiological changes needed to lose heat.

Older hearts may not be able to cope with the changes in circulation needed for more blood flow to go to the skin. Some medications can also interfere with the mechanisms for heat loss.

People experiencing any of the warning signs of heat stress (headache, nausea, light-headedness and fatigue) need to alter their behaviour to reduce it.

The best way to do this is to find a cool spot indoors or in the shade, put on light clothing, avoid physical exertion, put a damp cloth on your skin, immerse yourself in cold water and stay well hydrated.

But for some people, like children who are too young to make changes to their environment (such as those left in cars), this is not possible. Also, for the elderly, perhaps those with chronic mental illness or on certain medications that impair their ability to respond to increasing core temperature, these signs may not be apparent or noticed.




Read more:
Strategies for coping with extremely hot weather


This means we need safeguards to ensure the vulnerable stay cool. This is especially a problem for elderly people who live alone.

So, as our climate warms up, we need to do all we can to minimise the consequences of an increasingly hot environment. That means we must adapt our behaviour, our understanding of the issues, our urban environments, our sporting events and our systems that look out for the vulnerable in our community.


The ConversationThis article was co-authored by Dr Mark Monaghan, an emergency physician, and Dr Liz Bashford, an anaesthetist, who are both members of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

David Shearman, Emeritus Professor of Medicine, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.