Limitations to Thermoregulation and Acclimatization Challenge Human Adaptation to Global Warming

Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2015 Jul 15;12(7):8034-74. doi: 10.3390/ijerph120708034.


Human thermoregulation and acclimatization are core components of the human coping mechanism for withstanding variations in environmental heat exposure. Amidst growing recognition that curtailing global warming to less than two degrees is becoming increasing improbable, human survival will require increasing reliance on these mechanisms. The projected several fold increase in extreme heat events suggests we need to recalibrate health protection policies and ratchet up adaptation efforts. Climate researchers, epidemiologists, and policy makers engaged in climate change adaptation and health protection are not commonly drawn from heat physiology backgrounds. Injecting a scholarly consideration of physiological limitations to human heat tolerance into the adaptation and policy literature allows for a broader understanding of heat health risks to support effective human adaptation and adaptation planning. This paper details the physiological and external environmental factors that determine human thermoregulation and acclimatization. We present a model to illustrate the interrelationship between elements that modulate the physiological process of thermoregulation. Limitations inherent in these processes, and the constraints imposed by differing exposure levels, and thermal comfort seeking on achieving acclimatization, are then described. Combined, these limitations will restrict the likely contribution that acclimatization can play in future human adaptation to global warming. We postulate that behavioral and technological adaptations will need to become the dominant means for human individual and societal adaptations as global warming progresses.

Keywords: acclimatization; climate change; climate change adaptation; extreme heat; health risks; heat physiology; heat policy; limits; thermal comfort; thermoregulation.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acclimatization*
  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Body Temperature Regulation / physiology*
  • Child
  • Climate
  • Climate Change
  • Environment
  • Female
  • Global Warming*
  • Hot Temperature
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Young Adult