Spring is on its way in the Southern Hemisphere, but in much of South America it has already felt like the height of summer for months. A series of heatwaves has gripped the region, pushing temperatures to record highs month after month.
Last week, temperatures soared in southern Brazil. In Rio de Janeiro, a city of nearly 12 million people, intense heat and humidity caused a 23-year-old Brazilian university student to go into cardiac arrest during a Taylor Swift concert. Fans had queued for the Eras Tour at the Nilton Santos Olympic Stadium in extremely hot, humid and windless conditions for hours before the Friday night show. It was just as hot and humid inside the room, spectators reported.
The deceased woman, Ana Clara Benevides Machado, received medical treatment at the scene but later died at a nearby hospital.
Temperatures in Rio last week topped 100 F. But the heat index, a measurement that takes into account both air temperature and humidity, allowed I feel like it was close to 140 degrees Fahrenheit.. People can only tolerate such heat for a few hours before they start to get sick or even die.
Brazil’s Culture Ministry highlighted the extreme and dangerous heat in a statement expressing condolences for Machado’s death. This is a clear signal that climate change, the ministry said, must now be considered a major risk for events such as major concerts or other cultural events. Swift postponed a concert scheduled for Saturday night, another day expected to be dangerously hot.
The heat wave was the eighth worst of the year in Brazil, said Lincoln Alves, a climatologist at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. And this has almost certainly been intensified by climate change, says Alves. He and his colleagues analyzed a similar heat wave in September, which was at least 100 times more likely due to climate change.
The last six months have successively broken regional heat records, says Raul Cordero, a climatologist at the University of Santiago in Chile. “October was the hottest October on record. September was the hottest September on record. And so on, since last May.” He pauses and repeats. “We’ve seen six months (of record heat), straight!”
It’s very hot in South America, in part because the region is in the grip of El Niño, which raises temperatures by a few degrees both regionally and globally. But this warming adds to long-term global warming, caused mainly by the burning of fossil fuels.
“It is no coincidence that what is happening, not only in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo in southern Brazil, but also in Bolivia and Paraguay, and in Gran Chaco. Everywhere. And a little further in northern Brazil, not only are there high temperatures but a very serious drought,” explains Cordero. “This is a huge problem that affects not only southern Brazil but the entire subcontinent.”
Average temperatures in São Paulo have increased more than 3 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1960s.
A few extra degrees of warming may seem small, Alves says, but the increase in the number of extreme hot days have soared. In the 1960s, the region experienced about seven days of intense heat, or about one major heat wave per year. Today, each year there are more than 50 days of extremely hot weather, or about 9 major heat events. This number is expected to increase further in the future.
How heat kills
Air temperatures in Rio de Janeiro were sweltering last week as concertgoers waited to enter Nilton Santos Stadium for Swift’s Eras tour on Friday night. People waited for hours in the sun to enter the room, and many had no water to drink.
High humidity was the other problem. People cool themselves by sweating: when water evaporates, it carries away heat accumulated in the body. But when the air is extremely humid, that is, when it retains almost all the water vapor possible, sweat does not evaporate. It remains pearly on the skin, useless.
“When we think about the real dangers to the human body, humid heat stress is one of the biggest,” says Daniel Vecellio, a climatologist and heat expert at George Mason University. “When it starts to get really humid, we can sweat as much as we want, but if that sweat can’t evaporate… it basically shuts off our main physiological mechanism that allows us to cool down.”
The air in Rio last week was calm and stagnant, making it almost impossible for sweat to evaporate. The air was heavy with humidity.
The body can also cool itself by directing blood to smaller vessels near the skin, where it can hopefully come into contact with cooler air. This puts pressure on the heart, which has to pump harder to circulate blood. That’s why heart problems, like the one that killed Machado, increase during heat waves, Veliccio says.
It’s not like Brazilians aren’t used to the heat, Alves says. “But these days, in September, October, right now, the temperature is putting too much pressure. Even those people who, I would say, are more familiar with these kinds of climates, are dealing with stress from these extreme events. “
Making heat less dangerous
Heat as widespread and extreme as last week’s in Rio will still be dangerous, says Marisol Yglesias-González, a climate expert at the Centro LatinoAmericano de Excelencia en Cambio Climático y Salud in Costa Rica. But warning people before extreme heat, for example, can help reduce the dangers. Designing emergency heating plans in places like Nilton Santos Stadium and other public places is another way to reduce the risks of high temperatures.
Some of the work to reduce heat risks can come from governments. Cities, where large amounts of concrete absorb heat and raise temperatures, can develop green spaces or cooling centers. National weather systems can send early warnings to help people prepare for the worst periods, although it is crucial to design effective alerts that reach everyone involved, Yglesias-González emphasizes. Brazil’s weather agency issued heat warnings last week.
Efforts must also be made in the private sector. The Brazilian Ministry of Culture emphasized in its statement that new risks linked to climate change require coordinated efforts from event organizers. Emergency heating protocols are essential, says Yglesias-González. For example, Nilton Santos Stadium banned spectators from bringing bottled water inside. This led to many fans becoming dehydrated. Brazil’s justice minister said on X, formerly Twitter, that bottled water would be allowed in venues in the future.
“They weren’t allowing people to bring their water bottles into the room? In reality, we’re not in the 70s, we don’t have 70s time! We are facing an existential crisis with climate change,” says Yglesias. -González.
“If we do these types of events, we need to recognize that climate change is a risk. And prepare for it, to protect the people we bring to see these types of shows.”
That means everyonefrom private businesses to municipal governments to nonprofits, need climate plans, she says.
Due to the continued heat, Swift postponed a show scheduled for Saturday. Billboard, which has begun tracking concerts affected by extreme climate-influenced weather, has counted 30 shows postponed or canceled in 2023 so far due to heat, flooding and other weather issues.
Adapting to the heat problems that exist, and will continue to worsen as climate change progresses, is half the challenge, says Cordero, the Chilean climatologist. The other half is about tackling the root cause of human-caused climate change: dramatically reducing the pollution caused by global warming.
Swift, like other members of the richest 1% on the planet, has a disproportionate impact on climate change. This group alone is responsible for around 20% of global emissions, according to a new Oxfam report released this week.