The summer of 2018 has been a real scorcher. And so was the spring: On April 30, 2018, the temperature in Nakwabash, Pakistan, climbed all the way up to 122.4 degrees Fahrenheit (50.2 degrees Celsius). Scientists think this might represent the hottest April temperature ever recorded on planet Earth. (And in April 2018, the planet hit another milestone: 400 consecutive months of above-average global temperatures. Terrific.)
Climate experts may have to break out the record books again in July. Nobody knows for sure, but another temperature-related superlative may have just been set in Africa.
Hot Even for the Sahara
Ouargla is a city of 190,000 people in northern Algeria, an African country that borders the Mediterranean. It's also the capital of the Ouargla Province and is located within the Sahara desert. Built around an oasis, the city was a major trading center for hundreds of years. Modern Ouargla is renowned for its university, its military base and its close proximity to lucrative oil and gas fields. Now the city has another point of distinction.
North Africa spent the first week of July 2018 in the grip of an oppressive heat wave. The situation reached its absurd apex on Thursday, July 5. That day, the temperature in Ouargla jumped all the way up to 124.3 degrees Fahrenheit (51.3 degrees Celsius). As weather historian Maximiliano Herrera was quick to point out on social media, this might be the highest reliably recorded African temperature of all time.
Way back in 1951, observers claimed to have recorded an even higher temperature of 131 degrees Fahrenheit (55 degrees Celsius) in Kebili, Tunisia. The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) recognizes this as the hottest temperature ever documented in Africa — and the Eastern Hemisphere for that matter. However, there are some climate scientists who think the 1951 recording may have been inaccurate. If this is true, the Ouargla scorcher ought to claim the all-time record. But that won't happen unless the WMO certifies its accuracy — and decides to officially invalidate the Tunisian temperature from '51.
No matter what the WMO decides, there's no denying the fact that we live in some extreme times. Heat records are being set or matched all around the world. To the best of our knowledge, Denver, Colorado, has never been hotter at any point in human history than it was on June 28, 2018, when the Mile High City reached a high of 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.5 degrees Celsius). Glasgow, Scotland, broke its own "hottest temperature" record — 89.4 degrees Fahrenheit/31.9 degrees Celsius — on the very same day.
And get this: Over in Quriyat, Oman, the local temperature never dipped below 108.7 degrees Fahrenheit (42.6 degrees Celsius) on June 26. That's the highest recorded "low" or "minimum" temperature of all time.
Tolls on the Human Body
Now that days of staggering heat are becoming normalized, what does this mean for our health?
At the onset, it's a good idea to educate yourself about the symptoms of heat stroke and heat exhaustion — as well as the differences between them. We got in touch with W. Larry Kenney, a professor of health and human development at Penn State who focuses on the body's ability to regulate its temperature.
"Heat exhaustion is far less serious [than heat stroke]," he says in an email, "but still relevant to health and wellbeing. Heat exhaustion is usually an affliction of dehydration and most often occurs during work or physical activity."
When the outside temperature gets too high, our body responds by sending a large quantity of blood into the skin. The blood is fairly hot when it arrives, but the red stuff begins to cool down after its internal heat dissipates through the epidermis. However, this will only work if you're consuming enough water and sodium. Kenney explains that after you become dehydrated, your cardiovascular system can't "pump large volumes of blood" toward the skin. That leaves you vulnerable to heat exhaustion, a condition whose symptoms include fainting, excessive sweating and a diminished appetite.
Though severe cases of heat exhaustion might require intravenous therapy, you can usually treat it by drinking more fluids and getting rest in a cool place. Unfortunately, heat stroke is a lot harder to remedy.
Sufferers of heat exhaustion often feel cold to the touch due to all the sweating they may experience. Yet people who are going through heat stroke feel alarmingly hot. The latter manifests itself when your internal temperature control system fails. Victims of heat stroke have core body temperatures of 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) or higher. Once you get that hot, your nerve cells and organs may be permanently damaged, which explains why heat stroke kills around 240 people every year in the United States alone.
In some cases, heat stroke sets in after a prolonged period of physical activity in hot, humid environments. On the other hand, it can also strike a person who's staying sedentary, especially if we're talking about an elderly individual or a young child. Regardless, Kenney cites heat stroke as "a life-threatening emergency" that has to be treated "by cooling the victim quickly and intensely."