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When will it be too hot to hold the Summer Olympics?

Media Release - University of Auckland

12 August 2016

When will it be too hot to hold the Summer Olympics?

Heat stress due to climate change will limit where and when the summer Olympics can be held in the future, according to new research from the University of Auckland.

The commentary study, published in the British medical journal, The Lancet this week, looked at the impact of increased temperatures on Northern Hemisphere countries’ ability to stage the iconic Summer Olympics’ marathon.

“High-visibility international athletic events such as the Summer Olympics represent just a small fraction of heavy exertion outdoors,” says co-author, Professor Alistair Woodward head of the University’s department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics.

“But increasing restrictions on when, where, and how the Games can be held owing to extreme heat are a sign of a much bigger problem.

“If the world’s most elite athletes need to be protected from climate change, what about the rest of us?” he says.

By 2085 the study finds almost 90 percent of large cities in the Northern Hemisphere will be too hot and humid during the summer months to safely run the marathon.

“Only three cities in North America, two in Asia and none in Africa will fall in the low risk category, “ says Professor Woodward. “Projections to early next century suggest the last cities with low-risk summer conditions will be Belfast, Dublin, Edinburgh and Glasgow.”

The study was in collaboration with colleagues from the University of California, the Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology, and the Centre for Technology Research and Innovation, at Limassol in Cyprus.

“Climate change threatens human health in many ways - through heat waves, extreme weather events, and shifts in disease vectors, as well as economic and social stresses on populations living in or trying to escape areas affected by seawater intrusion, drought, lower agricultural productivity, and floods.”

“In the short term, most of these impacts could be lessened, such as by actions to reduce background disease risks and other known causes of vulnerability,” says Professor Woodward.

“The world beyond 2050 poses increasingly difficult challenges, not only because of the inherent uncertainties in long- term predictions, but because the extent and speed of change might exceed society’s ability to adapt.

“The risk of so-called pernicious impacts— those that require trade-offs between what is generally assumed and valued as part of society and what is healthy—will rise,” he says.

Professor Woodward suggested that perhaps the most pernicious of these impacts was the growing expansion in season and geography of outdoor conditions (or unprotected indoor spaces) in which heavy work is no longer safe.

“As more than half the planet’s workforce works outdoors, primarily in construction and agriculture, society faces an increasingly serious trade-off between population health and labour productivity,” he says.

“The risk to workers’ health could be minimised if workers are allowed to sit in the shade during the hottest times of day and take breaks during hot, humid months.

“Otherwise, exertional heat stroke and its negative outcomes, including mortality, will become a large part of outdoor work around the world,” says Professor Woodward.

“Increasingly, people will face a choice between doing what they have done for millions of years—work hard outdoors essentially any time they wish—and being safe.”

He says that heavy work outdoors is already limited in some parts of the world by heat stress—as measured by the wet- bulb globe temperature (WBGT), a combination of temperature, humidity, heat radiation, and wind—and climate change means more regions will be affected for a greater part of the year.


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