Failing Crops, Death by Humidity and Mass Migration: How Heat Waves Could Soon Make Key Regions of China Uninhabitable

Heat waves caused by climate change could make China's main agricultural regions the most inhospitable places on Earth for humans.

A study by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that soaring temperatures will make the North China Plain, which spans 35 million acres from Beijing to Shanghai, uninhabitable by the end of the century.

The region generates around a fifth of the country's grain and is currently home to 400 million people.

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A farmer walks on a dried-up pond on the outskirts of Baokang, in central China, on June 10, 2007. A recent study showed that climate change could make swathes of northern China uninhabitable. REUTERS/Stringer

Elfatih Eltahir, a climate professor at MIT, said, "This spot is just going to be the hottest spot for deadly heat waves in the future."

The study that Eltahir led showed the potential of heat waves to cause what is known as "wet bulb" temperatures. They occur when the the heat and humidity, even in the shade, are so strong that it is impossible for the human body to cool itself.

Under those conditions, which could be common by 2070, a seemingly healthy person could die within six hours, said the study, which was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Lacking rain, the irrigation processes in the North China Plain are so intense that its evaporation leads to higher humidity and higher temperatures.

The MIT study concluded that recent heat waves in the region, such as one in 2013 that went on for 50 days, would become more common.

"The North China Plain is likely to experience deadly heat waves, with wet bulb temperatures exceeding the threshold defining what Chinese farmers may tolerate," Eltahir predicted.

"China is currently the largest contributor to the emissions of greenhouse gases, with potentially serious implications to its own populations. But global society, not only China, should take serious steps to mitigate climate change.

"Continuation of current global emissions may limit the habitability of the most populous region of the most populous country on Earth," Eltahir concluded.

A World Bank report in March found that the impact of climate change on densely populated areas like China could see hundreds of millions of people move within their countries' borders by 2050, which could cause a looming human crisis.

"We could see increased tensions and conflict as a result of pressure on scarce resources. But that doesn't have to be the future. While internal climate migration is becoming a reality, it won't be a crisis if we plan for it now," said the report team lead, Kanta Kumari Rigaud.

A separate report, by risk analysis firm Verisk Maplecroft, found that climate change would hit the economies of China, Southeast Asia and Africa the hardest.

"Heat stress will reduce worker productivity; it will hit commercial performance; and some supply chains will become less stable as a result," Alice Newman, an environment and climate change analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, told Axios. "Reduced export revenues also mean less money available to governments to spend on combating the worst impacts of rising heat."