Life in the Oven

We’ve talked recently about life in the coldest places. Of course, the opposite extreme also exists as well. Now, we’re talking about heat. And there are some incredibly hot and dry places where people also live.

The hottest location that’s known to have had a permanent human population was the town of Dallol, in Ethiopia. Dallol doesn’t appear to be inhabited anymore, but as late as the 1960s there were some saltmines in the vicinity. During this period, it is known to have averaged an annual temperature of 34 degrees Celsius, combined with low humidity and basically zero rain. The highs on any given summer day can be as great as the low 50s.

This is, by the way, the sort of heat that kills. (If the core temperature of your body rises more than a couple of degrees above 37 C, you have a problem. The proteins that your cells need to make them work, well, they start to fold up and die. Once the proteins go – are ‘denatured’ – then everything else swiftly follows.*)

A similar situation is found at Lake Assal, in Djibouti. Here, in winter, the temperature can drop to as low -as low! – as 34 degrees Celsius. In summer, it regularly hits 55 degrees Celsius. The inhabitants – and there are some, believe it or not – make their living from mining salt from the deposits around the lake. They are completely dependent on fresh water tankered in by the government. (The lake itself is saline and undrinkable.)

Now, this climate is extreme even for the region – but it is worth noting that even the capital of Djibouti has a very hot and very dry climate as well. Probably as climate change starts to bite, this area will be one of the first to have to be completely abandoned. Human beings can just about tolerate averages around 35 degrees, but when the averages nudge up to 40, I think that may be too much. (An average of 40 tends to imply summers nudging into the low 60s – 60s! -, after all.)

And it’s strange to think that this part of our planet may soon actually be less inhabitable than parts of Antarctica. (One could even speculate about a possible future ‘land rush’ from the roasting, Greenhouse wastelands of central Africa to the newly-thawed coastal fjords of the Antarctic Peninsula.) But oddly enough, there’s a symmetry between hot and cold. These hot lands tell the same story as the cold settlements – human adaptability combined with tool use has, to a limited extent, tamed an extremely hostile environment.

*Incidentally, this is one of the truly exceptional aspects of the human organism. Compared to other mammals, we are amazingly good at dealing with waste heat. Sweating may be a nuisance, but it’s a necessary nuisance!


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