The earth’s population and its need for finite resources is increasing exponentially. It took from the dawn of humanity until 1823 for the global population to reach 1 billion. The next billion were not added for another 123 years, then 33 years, now every 12-14 years. The current rate of global resource utilization is staggering and outpacing our ability to replenish. “Every second, we destroy half a soccer pitch area of rainforest. In the same second, we throw away 16,600 plastic bottles and 127,000 plastic bags. The world loses 24 billion tons of topsoil each year and may run out of topsoil, on which today’s food is grown, in a matter of decades.”(Matters of life and death. Montgomery & Tipton (2019)).
Multiplying the already disastrous consumption of resources is the warming climate. “In 2018, we burned a quarter of a million kilograms of coal, 116 million liters of gas, and 7 million liters of oil…every SECOND. In the span of just 50 years, atmospheric CO2 emissions have reached the highest concentrations in over 3 million years. The consequent trapping of longwave radiation has led to energy gain (1750-2011) at a rate the equivalent of four Hiroshima bombs each SECOND. Polar ice is melting and sea levels are rising. When we add energy to the atmosphere, we get weather - more of it, and ever more extreme”(Matters of life and death. Montgomery & Tipton (2019)). Many of you (myself included) see and feel its effects around you. Changing wild game migrations, changes in dam-controlled water flows to match both changing electrical usage and rainfall, earlier/later starts to river seasons, wildfires in and destruction of wilderness areas, the list goes on.
Why are we bringing this up in a column reserved for aquatics? We are just returning from the International Drowning Researchers’ Alliance (IDRA) conference, which met to discuss the research agenda for drowning as it relates to climate change. Climate change results in changing drivers for recreational, occupational, and daily interaction with bodies of water, increased frequency of unsafe exposure to water, changing environments locally, changing risks for individuals, changing risks for rescuers, increased burden on rescuers, and increased burden on health services.
We anticipate that as the planet warms, there will be a growing global burden of drowning. While the initial thought may go to the increased flooding from natural disasters, there are additional considerations. It is forecasted that in the next 50 years, 1-3 billion people will be living outside of survivable areas. There will be an additional 0.75 billion that are currently living below the projected high tide line. These major factors combined with changing patterns of wild game and inarable soil will drive massive human migration. Already treacherous routes such as the one from north Africa to Europe will become more so. Rising water levels and the search for clean drinking water will force billions to make risky crossings to find safety, or daily for fresh water.
More than 90% of global drowning deaths are in low and middle income countries.
In addition to increased drowning from flooding, migration and reconcentration of populations will cause an increase in diarrheal disease like cholera, zoonotic disease (like avian influenza, SARS-CoV-2, monkeypox, etc.). Mitigation and response efforts will face new challenges. Increasing temperatures means increased risk to all people for heat illness. Particularly at risk will be rescuers that respond to many of these disasters; consideration must be given to the increased heat stress of rescuers in personal protective equipment such as wetsuits, drysuits, turnout gear, etc. Contamination of floodwaters and rivers with infectious agents, petroleum products, and other toxic chemicals will increase risk to rescuers and the general population alike. Agencies will need to develop strategies to mitigate climate change as well as adapt to the things we cannot change.
One such adaptation that was promoted at the conference, and is currently being implemented, is the use of lifejackets during tsunamis. The Maldives recently passed legislation requiring lifejackets be placed in every hotel room with the hope that they are utilized if there is a tsunami or flash flood. While it may seem like a simple solution, the logistics can be quite difficult. It is apropos that this model of having life jackets in every room is adapted from the cruise ship industry. Cruise ships are manmade structures subject to the tides and whims of the ocean, able to exist and sustain life through carefully planned and allocated resources. With the contraction of the polar icecap, there has been increased maritime activity in polar waters, especially cruise ships. This change increases the likelihood of the need for remote search and rescue activity over thousands of miles.
At the risk of being doom and gloom, all of this begs the question – What can I do as an individual? The first step is acknowledging that there is a problem and that we must act urgently to mitigate the impending disastrous consequences. The hardest thing to do is to change human behavior and big change is required. Fortunately, this can be accomplished by many small changes. People must demand of their representatives that climate change mitigation is high on the list of priorities. Ask the organizations you deal with if they have a climate change policy, a sustainability officer, environment friendly procurement policies, support those groups that do. Join and support organizations working to save our environment. Then think about all those things you can do personally to reduce your carbon footprint, from travel to local and seasonal eating, and many other actions (The Physiological Society, 2021).
A recent report from Oxfam International shows that only 50% of the funds required by the United Nations to meet extreme climate challenges have been met. It is beyond our scope to recommend specific charities, but there are unbiased third party rating agencies that rate non-profits (https://www.charitynavigator.org/index.cfm?bay=content.view&cpid=8636). We believe that climate advocate Dr. Elizabeth Sawin said it best – “Everyone doesn't need to leave their field and convert to a climate practitioner. But everyone does need to figure out how their field might best contribute to protecting the climate, and how the climate change we can't prevent will impact their field.” We hope that this at least starts the conservation. The solutions will not lie just with rescuers and researchers, but will require accountants, engineers, artists, physiologists, lawyers, and the entire range of human experience and expertise to ensure that our planet is habitable and humane for our children and grandchildren.
PNAS May 26, 2020 117 (21) 11350-11355
Xu et al 2019
1. Montgomery H. & Tipton MJ (2019) Matters of life and death: change beyond planetary homeostasis. Experimental Physiology Editorial.
Additional Multimedia Link(s)
Life Vest Survival Kit for Floods and Tsunamis. YouTube Sept 7, 2016.
American Outdoor Guide Waves of Death.
Primal Survivor How to Prepare for and Survive a Flood.
The Physiological Society (2021) Physiology and climate change. Appendix (Montgomery & Tipton).