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Annually, around half a million people die in heat waves

The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet
Forfatter: Jeff Goodell Little
Forlag: Brown and Company, (USA)
GLOBAL WARMING / Just as tourists travel from Spain to Bergen to cool off, the whole world is fleeing towards cool refuges, while global warming shows itself as a bodily and concrete experience.


The headlines this summer have increasingly revolved around the weather: Meteorology can no longer be separated from the news, and the heat wave has spread into international politics and is giving a new twist to the health council and the tourism section.

The writer Jeff Goodell is known for the book The Water Will Come (2017), which is about rising seas in the era of the climate crisis. With his book on heat, he has hit the mark and found a large audience, also outside those typically interested in climate change. Even more than the previous book mixes The Heat Will Kill You First journalistic reports with science communication. The theme invites dramatic narratives: We follow, as in a crime mystery, a family that goes hiking in Yosemite National Park on a hot day in 2019 – and never returns home. Another family in Chennai struggles to make life work in overheated poor districts where every day's activities and life choices are affected by the heat. And we follow marine scientists who find starfish disintegrating on an overheated coast.

What heat does to the body

When Goodell puts the murderous side of the heat in the center, it is obviously more than sensationalism: About half a million people die every year in heat waves, and the number is rising as fast as the global average temperature. In practice, global warming is not so much about average temperatures, it is about extreme heat.

After recounting a number of deaths and extreme experiences, Goodell delves into the biology and physiology of heat: what it does to the body. He shows how heat stroke or hyperthermia can affect people regardless of their condition – and that it happens quickly. The body has a tolerance limit and cooling mechanisms, such as sweating. But if the body temperature reaches 41 degrees, the cell walls disintegrate as if the tissue itself were melting, and from this point there is little that can be done: the result is organ failure.

To Goodell's great credit, he already goes into how extreme early in the book heat waver also affects animals and plants. Many insectare, like the bumblebees, fall dead to the ground if the temperature gets too high. Other insects, such as the bark beetles, thrive and devour entire forests that are stressed by the warm weather.

Higher temperatures mean that more and more species migrate further north and up in altitude. For trees and corals, these individuals must hold on as best they can while new populations spread towards colder areas. Many fish, such as salmon, have a very limited tolerance for heat and are unable to cross warm parts of the sea. Goodell tells of trucks being filled with salmon; in this way they were helped to migrate up the rivers blocked by warm water masses. In the heat, the choice is between adapting or fleeing. The heat becomes truly deadly when adaptability reaches its limit, or it is too late or impossible to escape.

Evolutionary history

How much hotter can it get on Earth, at that heatSte? Nobody knows. Can we adapt? Just a short way to go. Man and nature's tolerance limits are clear and make the heat a matter of life and death. Some take comfort in the fact that the earth has had very warm periods in the past. Goodell recalls that these periods have also brought mass extinctionr.

Not only have we shed our fur and become naked, but we have far more sweat glands.

In an evolutionary historical passage, Goodell points out that we are an extremely heat-adapted animal: not only have we shed our fur and become naked, but we have far more sweat glands than the great apes, such as the chimpanzee. We have learned to survive in extreme conditions, but we also have our limitations. How much heat we can survive is not only determined by physical factors, but by social and economic conditions. Many people cannot flee to air-conditioned rooms, as the most affluent do: the heat waves kill the poorest, of whom there are also far more in the global south.

The heat spreads

It is in the nature of heat that it spreads, and thus affects everything it touches. In Goodell's book, we also meet the scientific pioneer and American spy Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford, who in the 1700th century hatched the secrets of heat in the heat of war. He drilled cannons, studied the dissipation of frictional heat and with this laid the foundation for the first law of thermodynamics, which states that energy can be transformed from one form to another.

If the body temperature reaches 41 degrees, the cell walls dissolve.

As in thermodynamics, the global drives heatingit also brings out political and ecological entropy: It spreads, and orderly patterns disintegrate – like the cell walls in an overheated body. Species and places are affected differently, while secondary effects spread from one ecosystem to another, from one sector of society to another. Failing corn
crops leads to more pressure on new ones agricultures areas, and when prices for agricultural products rise, while farmland shrinks, the heat can contribute to deforestation of the Amazon, Goodell points out. The heat leads to migrations, which leads to conflicts. The faster the heat increases and the more intense the heat waves become, the more chaos we get in nature and society.

Doomsday Glacier

Although many examples come from his own USA, with the unofficial capital of the heat waves Phoenix, Arizona as the focal point, the book is truly planetary with a thousand stories from every continent and from pole to pole, many of them personally experienced or recounted from meetings with people who have been affected by the heat.

The book's longest chapter describes an encounter, not with a human being, but with an ice mass and a changing continent. Goodell reports from his own journey to Antarctica on research ships where they visited the increasingly unstable Thwaites Glacier, which is also called the 'doomsday glacier', as it can cause the sea to rise by three meters if it collapses. This huge mass of ice is also affected by the heat – by our warming. A few degrees warmer and "goodbye Miami".

Goodell explains in a footnote that the popular term 'doomsday glacier' was something he invented himself – and that some researchers think the term is too alarmist. He himself thinks the situation is alarming enough to shout a warning, as he did with his previous book. This new book makes him an ally for all professed alarmistis (as myself). Where Goodell's book on rising seas was prophetic, this new book is present-oriented: The extreme accounts and shocking stories are not based on horror scenarios for the future, but sober reportage from the past ten years.

Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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