SINGAPORE (NYTIMES) – The temperature had reached 30 degrees Celsius and was climbing. Humidity measured in at 75 per cent. Sunshine glinted off the tall buildings.
Fourteen volunteers, six climate researchers and a mobile biometeorological cart named “Smarty” prepared to set off for a “heat walk” in the South-east Asian city-state’s downtown area. The volunteers had strapped on devices to measure their heart rates and the temperature of their skin. Winston Chow, the lead researcher, watched the scene as a sliver of sweat formed on his forehead.
Chow and his team are part of Cooling Singapore, a multi-institutional project that was launched in 2017 with funding from the Singapore government. The project’s current goal is to build a computer model, or “digital urban climate twin”, of Singapore, which would allow policymakers to analyse the effectiveness of various heat mitigation measures before spending money on solutions that might not work.
It is research that the Singapore government hopes can be replicated around the world.
“People have always wondered which is the critical component of climate that really affects your discomfort. Is it low wind speed? Is it high air temperatures? Is it high radiation from the sun?” said Chow, an associate professor of science, technology and society at the Singapore Management University.
“We get a handle on that, it can help a lot with smarter urban design at the planning level or with how individuals deal with heat,” he said.
Singapore’s wealth gives it the resources to invest in such high-tech solutions. But researchers say the South-east Asian state’s geographical position also makes it a good model for others, particularly nations in the tropics. Situated near the equator, the island has year-round temperatures that hover around 31 deg C. Like the rest of the tropics, it has the extra burden of high humidity, at an average 84 per cent.
The research is especially relevant when many countries are being slammed by record temperatures. Heatwaves in Britain, China, Japan and much of Europe have caused deaths, upended lives and forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate.
In Singapore, the fear is that extreme heat could make the affluent city-state uninhabitable. Temperatures are rising at twice the global average. The Centre for Climate Research Singapore has projected that climate change would lead to average temperatures rising by 1.4 to 4.6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.
In 2019, the prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, said in his National Day rally speech that Singapore’s weather was “palpably hotter” and that rainstorms were heavier, adding that “this will very likely worsen over the next few decades”.
Scientists have warned that the combination of high heat and humidity – known as extreme wet-bulb temperature – is potentially one of the deadliest consequences of global warming. Sustained exposure to certain thresholds of high heat and humidity makes it difficult for people’s bodies to cool down, as they cannot effectively perspire. That can be fatal, even for healthy people. Young children and older people are particularly at risk.
“We are very worried about climate change,” said Zhang Weijie, director of energy and climate policy at the Ministry of Sustainability and the Environment. “It is an existential challenge for us.” “It is so important for us to keep Singapore liveable and to be able to pursue the activities that we have right now,” he added.