The heat is on: Humanity’s future may hinge on climate tech

As an intense weeklong heat wave hits the region, Israeli climate scientists say that only new technologies and reducing greenhouse gas emissions can save us.

 Interrelated crises with reciprocal feedback: Pollution, Climate change and Activity that Impairs Biodiversity (photo credit: studiovin/Shutterstock)
Interrelated crises with reciprocal feedback: Pollution, Climate change and Activity that Impairs Biodiversity
(photo credit: studiovin/Shutterstock)

As long-lasting and intense heat waves coupled with droughts grow increasingly common over the summer months, humanity may become more and more dependent on climate-based technologies to survive, Israeli climate scientists believe.

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An intense weeklong heat wave hit Israel and the surrounding countries on Sunday. Temperatures are expected to soar to 45°C (around 113°F) in the Jordan Valley, while coastal areas will face high humidity.

Such scorching hot temperatures have become prevalent not only in the Middle East, but also in Europe, North America and other parts of the world. In fact, NASA data shows that 19 of the hottest years on record have taken place since 2000. Of these, the years 2020 and 2016 are the hottest years on record since record-keeping first began in 1880.

Dr. Amir Givati, a lecturer at Tel Aviv University’s department of environmental studies and chief science officer at EnviroManager, said that the issue is “very serious” and called extreme heat a “silent killer.”

Climate change is taking place “much faster than we expected,” Givati told The Media Line. “According to the models, we were supposed to reach these temperatures only in another decade or two. It is leading to an increase in environmental-related deaths. Heat has a very significant impact on the human body, which cannot cope with it, in addition to the impact it has on agriculture and energy consumption.”

 Impact of extreme heatwave and drought in summer 2018 compared to summer 2017, on fields near Slagelse in Zealand, Denmark. (credit:  European Space Agency) Impact of extreme heatwave and drought in summer 2018 compared to summer 2017, on fields near Slagelse in Zealand, Denmark. (credit: European Space Agency)

"Heat has a very significant impact on the human body, which cannot cope with it, in addition to the impact it has on agriculture and energy consumption."

Dr. Amir Givati

A joint Harvard University and Washington University study released earlier this year showed that incidences of dangerous heat – defined as 39.4°C (103°F) and above – would more than triple in mid-latitude countries like the US, China and Western Europe by 2100.

New climate technologies could provide some respite from such events by cutting carbon dioxide emissions as well as enabling crops to grow under extreme conditions. In addition, finding innovative ways to store solar power, which remains a challenge, could relieve some of the pressure on power grids.

"Heat has a very significant impact on the human body, which cannot cope with it, in addition to the impact it has on agriculture and energy consumption"

Whether technology might be able to save humanity from climate change, however, is the million-dollar question, according to Givati.

“Humanity’s fate depends on the development of these technologies, which may determine how we live 30 years from now as the planet continues to heat up,” he said. “We really need to find technological solutions.”

Middle East unprepared for climate crisis

Unlike Europe or the US, Givati believes that Israel is relatively well-prepared to handle extreme heat because of its experience with higher temperatures and access to air conditioning.

But Israel’s neighbors face an uncertain future due to a lack of resources.

“Jordan, for instance, is not prepared for the climate crisis with regard to desertification because they are not located next to the Mediterranean Sea like Israel is and take water from there, so Jordan is facing a severe water crisis,” Givati asserted. “They are dependent on Israel for water and energy.”

The situation is even more dire in places like Syria and Iraq, which lack proper infrastructure or access to water.

José Grünzweig, a professor of ecology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told The Media Line that heat waves are expected to directly impact the way many organisms function.

“If it is too hot for them, their growth and even their survival might be at risk,” Grünzweig said. “Other organisms might thrive at high temperatures, e.g., pests and pathogens, which can negatively affect plants and crops, particularly as those are weakened by the heat.”

The heat is also expected to greatly increase the frequency of droughts and wildfires, resulting in reduced plant growth and an increase in mortality rates for trees. This would inevitably lead toward less green vegetation in a given area and have a snowball effect on the rest of the ecosystem.

“Crops will need more irrigation water which puts our water reserves at risk,” Grünzweig explained. “Water shortages might be met by desalination, which comes at a high economic and environmental price. Consequently, food prices might rise.”

A study that was recently published in the Nature, Ecology and Evolution journal suggested that climate change is leading Earth’s wetter areas to increasingly adapt dryland mechanisms: rapid cycling between wet and dry conditions; redistribution of water in soils by plant roots; and formation of living crusts on soil surfaces by microscopic organisms.

"Crops will need more irrigation water which puts our water reserves at risk. Water shortages might be met by desalination, which comes at a high economic and environmental price. Consequently, food prices might rise."

The research – led by Grünzweig and co-authored by Professor Efrat Sheffer, Professor Ori Adam and Dr. David Helman, all of Hebrew University – showed that these mechanisms, which had previously only been relevant to arid regions, are showing up more and more in wetter areas.

The study showed additional humid regions will dry up in the coming years and plants there will become scarcer.

The only way to prevent this from happening, Grünzweig noted, is by addressing the challenges of climate change head on.

Some immediate solutions to extreme weather events include breeding plant species that are more heat- and drought-tolerant, as well as thinning planted forests so that they can subsist on smaller quantities of available water.

But in the long run, Grünzweig believes there is truly only one solution to the crisis.

“Options to mitigate effects of heat waves are reducing the extent of climate change by drastically decreasing greenhouse gas emissions,” Grünzweig said. “Such mitigation measures are the only way out of climate change in the long term.”