Afghanistan, Central America among regions most at risk from heat waves, study says

A new study identifies regions that are underprepared and most at risk from sweltering heat, highlighting the need to prepare for extreme temperatures around the world.

Led by researchers at the University of Bristol, the study found that unprecedented heat, coupled with growing populations or limited health-care and energy resources, puts some parts of the world at the most risk, including Afghanistan, Papua New Guinea and countries in Central America.

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The report shows that record temperatures, “which appear implausible until they happen,” could occur anywhere. But countries that have not experienced rare heat waves so far are particularly vulnerable, said climate scientist and lead author Vikki Thompson.

This is partly because they may be less prepared and steps to adapt are often taken only afterward, according to the peer-reviewed study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications.

The scientists based their analysis on data sets dating back more than 60 years, as well as climate models, to evaluate the likelihood of record heat. They also look at population and economic development projections. These are some of the regions they identify:

Afghanistan is “the region of most concern,” according to the researchers, for reasons including a lack of resources, steep projected population growth and the potential for “far more extreme heat waves than experienced” so far.

The dependence on agricultural livelihoods, poor socio-economic development and decades of war have contributed to making Afghanistan highly vulnerable to climate change, which could have a severe impact on food insecurity, according to the United Nations. Poverty and hunger have risen since the Taliban took over in 2021 and the chaotic U.S. military withdrawal upended the economy and the flow of aid.

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The 2021 Global Climate Risk Index ranked the Afghanistan as the sixth-most-affected country globally by climate threats and one of the least prepared.

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Countries in Central America are vulnerable, and they are likely to experience new high temperatures, although the population is not expected to increase as much as elsewhere.

“The current record is further below the statistical maximum — suggesting the region could experience a large jump in the record,” the study says.

Drought across swaths of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama has devastated farmland and left millions of people facing food insecurity, prompting efforts to restore forests in parts of the region, the United Nations says.

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Beijing and Central Europe

Parts of China and countries in Central Europe are also on the list because record heat waves in the densely populated regions could affect millions of people — although they are more likely to have the plans and resources to mitigate the impacts.

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While the study lists Beijing, as well as Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium, as vulnerable in terms of population, the authors say governments everywhere must prepare for heat extremes, with steps such as setting up cooling centers and reducing hours for those working outside.

“Being prepared saves lives,” said Dann Mitchell, a professor in atmospheric sciences and a co-author of the study. “In this study, we show that such record-smashing events could occur anywhere. Governments around the world need to be prepared.”

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