Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 July 2000
Issue No. 490
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Into the danger zone

By Fatemah Farag

It has been said that what we cannot change, we must accept. And we certainly cannot change the weather and are not responsible for its vicissitudes. Or are we?

As temperatures soared beyond 40 degrees Celsius this week, people woke up after nights of intermittent sleep, took to the hot, crowded and polluted streets, and, while sweating profusely, made fun of the Weather Authority. Throughout, the latter continued to bombard the public with what seemed, for the most part, to be irrelevant information on East Asian winds and temperature quotes that seemed lower than what everyone was enduring.

"But it is true," insisted Ali Qutb, a senior official at the Weather Forecasting Authority. "The heat wave is a result of a seasonal Indian wind passing over the Arabian Peninsula, which got hotter and then moved to southern Europe, where it became soaked with humidity before coming to Egypt. This is a normal phenomenon during the summer. And, in fact, the summer of 2000 has not been hotter than that of 1998 or 1999. What changes is people's perception of the heat, which varies from one person to the other and is influenced by wind and humidity."

Despite rising eyebrows and smirking lips, a part of what Qutb said is, in fact, quite accurate. What he is describing is "apparent temperature," that is how hot it really feels. This is measured by calculating, not only temperature, but also relative humidity, a model devised by the US National Weather Service (NWS) and called the Heat Index (HI).

Using this week's temperature averages and figures for relative humidity -- which the Weather Forecast calculated at between 30 and 40 per cent -- Al-Ahram Weekly has concluded that, according to HI, Egypt was in the "Danger Zone," which means that people could suffer sunstrokes, muscle cramps and heat exhaustion.

The effects of the heat in a city like Cairo are compounded by pollution and congestion. Again, according to the NWS, heat waves are characterised by stagnant weather which traps pollution in urban areas, creating "health problems of undiscovered dimensions."

In Qutb's words, "Is it not obvious that, in a city like Cairo, people would feel the heat differently because of pollution? People should not walk in the sun for extended periods, should wear bright clothes and stay away from crowded places," he said. The last point in particular is easier said than done.

What is most problematic in the Weather Forecasting Authority's attitude, however, is the implication that climate is fundamentally not changing -- an attitude that may prove refutable on a global scale.

This week's heat wave is a case in point. In south-eastern Europe, 25 people were killed and hundreds sent to hospitals as temperatures climbed to 45 degrees Celsius. Heat-related deaths were reported in Turkey, Romania (where the heat was so intense that it set off emergency systems at the local nuclear plant which had to be shut down), Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia and Bosnia.

In Cyprus, two people died and, in one day, 400 people were hospitalised. Roads melted, livestock died, power cuts were rampant as were dry winds which fanned hundreds of fires. The largest of these is said to have consumed 1,600 hectares of forest on the Aegean island of Samos, where the airport had to be shut down. Another fire raged for four days in Sala Consilina, south of Rome, burning 150 hectares of forest. In Rome, Pope John Paul II fled the hot city for the cooler Italian Alps. A number of Balkan countries proclaimed a state of natural disaster due to drought, which had the devastating effect of causing expected crop yields to fall by between 40 and 70 per cent less than last year.

"This has been the hottest 6 July for some 60 years," commented Turkish meteorologist Seyfullah Celik.

But it is impossible to ignore that as we suffer extreme heat, floods in China have swept over 410 people to their deaths. In Taiwan and the Philippines, Typhoon Kai-Tak killed 43 people and ruined 1,800 hectares of land, causing damage estimated at $1.16 million.

In Afghanistan, people are suffering their worst drought in three decades as a result of a southern dry spell, which also seared through Pakistan and Iran. According to the Red Cross, "an enormous tragedy could ensue if immediate and appropriate action is not taken." A United Nations appeal for $67 million in aid has been answered by donations of only $200,000.

The inciter of our weather troubles seems more and more to be global warming. According to Peter Frumhoff, director of global resources at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Boston, "this [current climate pattern] is certainly consistent with the projections of global warming that are being made; the fingerprint of global warming is beginning to emerge from the noise of natural climate variability."

If true, the results can only be devastating heat waves, droughts and typhoons. "A future with global warming means more intense heat, more drought, more damaging floods, more wildfires and more smoke-filled cities. It means more total losses for area farmers, more tropical diseases making their way into other parts of the world and more deaths due to extreme and sustained heat," said Christian Turner, a member of the Sierra Club, an American environmental group.

There is evidence to suggest the credence of the theory. The nine hottest years in recorded history happened in the last 11 years and the average surface temperature of the entire planet has risen by about one degree Fahrenheit in the last 100 years. The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts a further increase of 2 to 6 degrees over this century.

Already, the seasons are out of whack: worldwide, from 1981 to 1992, the start of springtime plant growth has advanced by eight days and major vegetation changes are occurring in over one-eighth of the planet. A warmer atmosphere means the evaporation of more water from the oceans, leading to greater precipitation. It also means the change of more energy, leading to greater atmospheric violence.

In the words of Wallace Broecker, of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, "Climate is an angry beast and we are poking it with sticks."

Recent international talks held in Germany involving countries that have signed the Kyoto Protocol -- the international agreement tackling climate change and committing countries to cut their emissions of six greenhouse gases -- laid the groundwork for high profile meetings scheduled for November during which leading polluters will be pressured to ratify the protocol. However, even if countries do sign, a report presented at the talks concluded that "no matter how aggressively emissions are reduced, the world will still experience climate change. This is because elevated concentrations of greenhouse gases will remain in the atmosphere for decades."

So, as we enter our local daily battle of survival against the heat, our awareness of the ravages of climactic change may serve to put our misery into perspective. Our own contribution to the damage may also be remembered the next time we switch on the air-conditioner or look passively at a factory spewing its pollutants every which way.

For more information on the Heat Index, heat health effects and how to deal with them, a useful website is: www.weather.noaa.gov/weather/hwave.htm1

 

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