Last week, the U.N.’s official climate change body announced that extreme weather events are tied to climate change and we can expect even more mayhem as the century wears on. Among other climate disasters, the authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report foresee more scorching days and longer and more frequent heat waves across much of the Earth.
For climate advocates, the report was a belated validation of what many had been claiming for years – though several expressed pique at how carefully the climate scientists hedged the conclusions. But much of America, distrustful of climate science and worried about the sluggish economy, likely shrugged the report off, if they noticed at all.
So in an effort to make this most recent climate science relevant to people’s lives for the coming Thanksgiving holiday, we decided to look at how climate change is affecting football.
The effects of climate change, so far, have been most noticeable in Texas, where a terrible drought has dried up football fields in small towns that used to look forward to Friday nights above all. But climate change will have a terrible effect on communities throughout the cradle of football in the Southern and plains states. Here are a few ways it will happen:
Football’s heartland will become dangerously hot
Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas. The home states of the last five college football champions? Yes. But these are also states that are projected to experience 150-180 days a year with peak temperatures over 90 degrees Fahrenheit by the final decades of the 21st Century. That’s almost six months of the year.
In parts of Florida and Texas the number is likely to exceed 180 days a year. Not only will the high temperatures be hotter, the lows will also be higher, so there will be less relief from the sultry conditions. This warming effect will have devastating effects on the ecology and economies of these area and make watching and playing football outdoors almost unbearable (more on that below).
Players will run increasing risk of hyperthermia
Football players begin practicing in early August, the hottest part of the summer. They sprint around in uniforms with heavy pads and football’s stoical culture discourages players from alerting coaches when they are dangerously hot (though safety practices have changed since the heat-related death of NFL player Korey Stringer in 2001).
Practicing in the morning does not seem to help. A recent study of 58 hyperthermia deaths (PDF) of football players from 1980-2009 found that players died even when heat and humidity were at lower levels and players were wearing shorts.
After a particularly brutal first week of August, one medical expert on hyperthermia told CNN, “We think it was the worst week in the last 35 years in terms of athlete deaths. It isn’t necessarily high temperatures that are killing players. The increase in daily apparent minimum temperatures has a more significant effect. One study of football practice times in Alabama found there were “no suitable times for outdoor practices in full uniform in August.”
Violent weather will continue to damage stadiums and hurt players
For millions, football is an island of calm in a turbulent world. But it isn’t immune to disaster.
In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina tore the roof off the Louisiana Superdome, home to the New Orleans Saints, and left the team without their home field for the season. Floodwaters submerged the Tennessee Titans field in May 2010. In April of this year, violent tornados tore through Tuscaloosa, Ala., the home of the University of Alabama. The Crimson Tide’s long-snapper Carson Tinker was hurt and his girlfriend was killed when the tornado ripped the roof off of his home.
It is difficult to link any one storm system to climate change, especially since the climatic factors affecting hurricanes are different than those that create tornados and flooding. Suffice it to say that if there are more extreme weather events caused by climate change, football players and stadiums will also be affected.
Grass fields will turn to dust, synthetic fields will be too hot to touch
The near-Biblical drought that has gripped Texas in recent years has parched dozens, maybe even hundreds, of grass football fields. This is a preview of things to come.
Drought and water scarcity will likely become more commonplace throughout football’s heartland, meaning more natural turf fields will turn to dust. And while artificial turf presents a plausible alternative to natural turf, synthetic fields are expensive and can cook to 50-100 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than the air temperature on hot days (natural turf fields rarely exceed 100 degrees). Artificial turf can be irrigated to bring temperatures down but surface temperatures rebound quickly, according to studies. And irrigating does not address water scarcity problems.
Top image: A rancher’s prayer near Austin. Courtesy Flickr user jdn