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Avoiding population exposure to heat-related extremes: demographic change vs climate change

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Heat waves are among the most dangerous climate-related hazards, and they are projected to increase in frequency and intensity over the coming century. Exposure to heat waves is a function of the spatial distribution of physical events and the corresponding population distribution, and future exposure will be impacted by changes in both distributions. Here, we project future exposure using ensembles of climate projections that account for the urban heat island effect, for two alternative emission scenarios (RCP4.5/RCP8.5) and two alternative population and urbanization (SSP3/SSP5) outcomes. We characterize exposure at the global, regional, and grid-cell level; estimate the exposure that would be avoided by mitigating future levels of climate change (to RCP4.5); and quantify the dependence of exposure on population outcomes. We find that climate change is a stronger determinant of exposure than demographic change in these scenarios, with a global reduction in exposure of over 50% under a lower emissions pathway, while a slower population growth pathway leads to roughly 30% less exposure. Exposure reduction varies at the regional level, but in almost all cases, the RCP remains more influential than the SSP. Uncertainty in outcomes is dominated by inter-annual variability in heat extremes (relative to variability across initial condition ensemble members). For some regions, this variability is large enough that a reduction in annual exposure is not guaranteed in each individual year by following the lower forcing pathway. Finally, we find that explicitly considering the urban heat island effect and separate urban and rural heat extremes and populations can substantially influence results, generally increasing projected exposure.

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  1. Produced by scaling the present-day population distribution by projected change at the national level.

  2. The most deadly extreme heat events of the past several decades have demonstrated maximum daily highs in exceedance of 40 °C for several consecutive days (e.g., India 2015; France/Europe 2003; Chicago/Midwestern US 1995) while daily mean temperatures hovered between the 32–36 °C range.

  3. In North America, Europe, and Oceania, SSP3 represents the “low population growth” scenario, in all other regions it is SSP5.


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BJ was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) Science, Education, and Engineering for Sustainability (SEES) program, award CHE-1314040. CT acknowledges the support of the Regional and Global Climate Modeling Program (RGCM) of the U.S. Department of Energy’s, Office of Science (BER), Cooperative Agreement DE-FC02-97ER62402. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under Grant Number AGS-1243095. NCAR is sponsored by the NSF.

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Correspondence to Bryan Jones.

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This article is part of a Special Issue on “Benefits of Reduced Anthropogenic Climate ChangE (BRACE)” edited by Brian O’Neill and Andrew Gettelman.

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Jones, B., Tebaldi, C., O’Neill, B.C. et al. Avoiding population exposure to heat-related extremes: demographic change vs climate change. Climatic Change 146, 423–437 (2018).

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