The 2014 World Cup in Brazil has been notable for more than hard-fought matches and stoppage time goals; it’s also the first time official water breaks have been called due to excessive heat and humidity. And as climate change drives up not only average temperatures but extreme heat and humidity, experts say outdoor events like the World Cup could pose a danger to the health of athletes.
In the recent draw between the United States and Portugal, for instance, the referee stopped play in the 39th minute so players could get water. The game was played in the Arena da Amazonia in Manaus, the subject of much criticism for its location in the middle of the Amazon rainforest — built solely for four World Cup matches. “At times it felt like [I was] having hallucinations due to the heat,” Italian player Claudio Marchisio said after his team defeated England in Manaus.
Dr. Thomas Trojian, Director of Injury Prevention and Sports Outreach Programs at the New England Musculoskeletal Institute, says temperature alone isn’t a representative way to measure threats to athletes. According to Trojian, events like the World Cup must monitor the heat stress on athletes by using the Wet Globe Bulb Temperature (WGBT), which measures radiant heat, humidity, wind speed, cloud cover and more. Earlier this month, Rogerio Neiva Pinheiro, a judge in Brasilia’s labor court, ordered FIFA, soccer’s governing body, to allow players water breaks if the composite temperature according to the WGBT exceeds 32 degrees Celsius (90 degrees Fahrenheit). Fail to comply and face a fine of 200,000 reais ($90,000), Pinheiro said.
“As you exercise you generate heat and if there’s heat outside, you can’t dissipate that heat and get rid of the heat in your body,” Trojian explained, “which then elevates your body temperature and once it reaches above 104 [degrees], the proteins in your body start to break down, they get damaged, and people can die.”
The danger posed by high heat and humidity is exacerbated by current climate trends. “It’s hard to rationally deny that there are global changes and the fluctuation in temperature, especially with the increase in high temperature, are going to effect people and that includes athletics,” Trojian said.
As greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, it’s not just driving up average temperatures across the globe, but extreme high temperatures, as well. “It really is the extremes where we experience stresses in the climate system most acutely,” said Noah Diffenbaugh, an associate professor of environmental earth system science at Stanford University and author of multiple studies on changes in extreme heat. “And we know not only that global warming is occurring — that the global mean near surface air temperature has been increasing — but also that in many parts of the globe, the occurrences of heat extreme has been becoming more frequent.”
The research Diffenbaugh and his team have undertaken found that in many parts of the globe, the occurrence of extremely hot seasons has been increasing, meaning more of the region is experiencing these extremes. Using climate models to look forward and ask, as global warming continues, what the likelihood will be that different parts of the globe will move into a novel heat regime — where every year is hotter than what used to be the hottest year — Diffenbaugh said the current World Cup site is part of the region experiencing the most dramatic changes.
“We find that actually in the Tropics is where there is the clearest and most immediate emergence of this permanent extreme heat — and for large areas of the Tropics, there is greater than 50 percent likelihood that will occur in the next couple of decades if global warming continues along its current trajectory,” Diffenbaugh said. “Tropical South America, Tropical Africa, Tropical Southeast Asia — we see 50 percent likelihood of moving to this extreme heat regime prior to 2040” if global emissions continue on a path similar to the current trajectory.
As a result, exercising won’t be the only activity to get more dangerous; working outdoors will become more challenging, as well. “In terms of impacts of climate change, its easier to adjust when in the calendar a particular event is held than it is to adjust when in the calendar a person is able to work outside,” Diffenbaugh said. “Certainly I’m not a medical expert but the players in the World Cup seem to be working hard when they’re playing and there are millions of people that labor outside in the heat to earn a living that don’t have the same kind of choice about when in the year they work.”
While Diffenbaugh isn’t examining the impacts of extreme heat on labor, he said the questions are being asked at the academic level. According to a recent analysis of the economic toll climate change could take on the United States, extreme heat poses a major threat to public health and labor. With the number of days over 95 degrees Farenheit projected to double or triple by 2050, the report projects that the American Southeast could see its labor productivity cut by three percent.
Looking out over the next century, if global carbon emissions continue unchecked, we’re headed for somewhere around 4° Celsius (or 7.2° Fahrenheit) of global warming, Diffenbaugh said. “And when we’re looking at that level of global warming, then most land areas of the globe experience extreme seasonal heat mostly every year,” he said. According to the latest analysis from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that level of warming would lead to “severe and widespread impacts on unique and threatened systems, substantial species extinction, large risks to global and regional food security, and the combination of high temperature and humidity compromising normal human activities.”
For Dr. Trojian, the risks that come from exertion in high heat and humidity aren’t just something to be monitored several decades down the road, but need to be taken into consideration now. “I think that changes in the global environment are going to put more and more athletes at risk, especially … when FIFA, the international federation, decides to put the World Cup in Qatar,” Trojian said. Qatar, site of the 2022 World Cup, “is a very bad choice heat illness-wise,” Trojian said. “You’re putting athletes at risk; it’s very dangerous for them.”
A glance at the current forecast for Qatar shows high temperatures ranging between 108 and 113 degrees Farenheit. These brutal conditions, coupled with rampant human rights abuses, led an international labor group to project that more than 4,000 workers could die in the lead-up to the World Cup. “Whether the cause of death is labelled a work accident, heart attack (brought on by the life threatening effects of heat stress) or diseases from squalid living conditions, the root cause is the same — working conditions,” the report found.
Qatar has promised to install solar-powered cooling systems in the stadiums it will construct for the World Cup. The systems have not been proven to work on such a large scale, however, and the “innovative technology” is still being developed, according to Doha News. The country recently cut the number of stadiums it plans to build by a third, due to rising costs and delays, Bloomberg reported. In January, FIFA Secretary-General Jerome Valcke told France Inter Radio, in what was apparently an unauthorized comment, that he believes the 2022 World Cup will be moved to winter. “The idea of moving the Middle East’s first World Cup to the cooler winter months arose out of concern for the health and safety of both players and fans alike, as well as out of environmental concerns associated with the Qatar organizing committee’s ambitious stadium cooling plans,” Al Jazeera reported.