Days so hot they will threaten the health of farm workers will nearly double in frequency in the United States by 2050, and triple in frequency by 2100, according to a new study published in IOP Science.
Currently, around 21 dangerously hot days — defined as greater than 83.4 degrees Fahrenheit for farm workers wearing double-layered clothing — take place in the US annually. As climate change intensifies, that number could jump to 39 days by 2050, and 62 days by 2100, the study by researchers at Stanford University found.
The more than 2 million farm workers in the US are especially vulnerable to this temperature increase because of the physically demanding nature of their jobs, long work days, and constant exposure to pesticides that can impair their ability to breathe.
Many farm workers, meanwhile, are also undocumented immigrants who have limited job protection and little access to quality health care.
The researchers warn that unless precautionary measures are taken, farm workers will experience a range of heat-related health consequences. For example, they may experience heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat strokes. Pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes and high blood pressure, can also be exacerbated by hot weather.
Farm owners can address this emerging crisis in a variety of ways. They can allow laborers to work reduced or no hours during extremely hot days, provide them with air-conditioned break rooms, provide breathable clothing, and ensure that they’re well hydrated throughout their shifts, Michelle Tigchelaar, a climate scientist at Stanford University who led the study, told Modern Farmer.
She added that governments should help farms become more heat-tolerant.
"Agriculture operates on very thin margins and some of the adaptive measures that we tested were taking a lot more breaks or taking breaks in air-conditioned environments," Tigchelaar told Modern Farmer. "Those things would have tremendous implications for the affordability and productivity of farms, so if there can be stronger policy structures that support that, [and] will be critical in ensuring that agricultural workers end up being protected."
Farmers can also shift away from industrial forms of agriculture toward sustainable, science-based practices that regenerate soil, improve crop resilience, and promote wildlife diversity.
Rising temperatures also affect the ability of land to support crops and the type of crops that can be grown in a region. Production of crops ranging from chocolate to corn to coffee are expected to dramatically decline in the decades ahead as temperatures increase. Overall agricultural yields, meanwhile, could also decline unless steps are taken to make farming more resilient.
It’s not just the US that will be impacted by rising temperatures, and economic sectors far beyond agricultural production are implicated in the matter.
A recent study found that more than 3.5 billion people, primarily in low-income nations, could be living in extreme heat by 2050. This spike in temperatures will mostly affect people who work outdoors such as construction workers, elderly people, and people living in poverty who don’t have access to air conditioning.
Devastating heat waves will also become more common by 2050, potentially killing hundreds of thousands of people in the US alone.
Countries can expand social safety nets to help populations adapt to new, scorching realities; they can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions to ensure the planet doesn’t warm to even greater extremes.