Temperature Increases And Extremes

Average temperature has increased globally over the past few decades and is expected to increase between 2.5-10.4 degrees F (1.4-5.8 degrees C) by the end of the 21st. century. An increase in mean temperature occurs in the context of fluctuating local, regional, seasonal, and other patterns. This translates to higher temperatures at the extreme, which in turn, are directly related to short-term human illness and death. For context, the estimated average temperature for the most recent ice age was approximately 7.2-9 degrees F (4-5 degrees C) below the mean temperature over the subsequent 10,000 years to the present. Research in this area has been especially controversial because of evidence of historic variation in temperature and difficulty establishing valid associations, in the context of global environmental complexity. Increasing mean temperature may be the most direct and measurable component of global warming and climate change, and health effects may be more related to extremes (both hot and cold) than to overall increased temperature.

Many scientists have proposed that the most significant impact of increasing mean temperatures will be the related disruption of regional and global weather patterns, driven, in part, by alterations in oceanic and atmospheric temperatures and currents. Relatively minor shifts in major currents, such as the Gulf Stream and El NiƱo, produce significant changes in the frequency and intensity of local storms and rainfall patterns.

It is expected that there will be both direct (or more immediate) impacts, as well as indirect impacts, of temperature changes and extremes. The most direct and observable effects are heat strokes and deaths related to heat extremes. Indirect effects are more debatable and difficult to attribute to any one cause, but one possibility is decreased health related to decreased physical activity, and more time spent indoors in air-conditioned environments. Some research has also shown associations between higher temperatures and violence in urban areas.

In summer 2003, a two-week heat wave in Europe killed tens of thousands of people. It was estimated that summer temperatures averaged 6.3 degrees F (3.5 degrees C) above baseline, perhaps the hottest season in several hundred years. Lessons learned include highlighting the vulnerability of elderly and health-impaired individuals, and the disparate impact of temperature extremes on poor people and resource-poor communities. This event was particularly important for future planning, because it highlighted the continuing inadequacy of mitigation plans and available resources in developed countries. Another compounding factor is the increased ambient temperature of urban areas, which can result in a significant contribution to morbidity and mortality during peak heat events.

Increases in average ambient temperature are also expected to contribute to melting of ice caps and glaciers, which currently reflect large amounts of incident radiation (albedo), potentially leading to further global warming and climate change that may negatively impact health at regional and global levels.

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