When do Indians feel hot? Internet searches indicate seasonality suppresses adaptation to heat

In a warming world an increasing number of people are being exposed to heat, making a comfortable thermal environment an important need. This study explores the potential of using Regional Internet Search Frequencies (RISF) for air conditioning devices as an indicator for thermal discomfort (i.e. dissatisfaction with the thermal environment) with the aim to quantify the adaptation potential of individuals living across different climate zones and at the high end of the temperature range, in India, where access to health data is limited. We related RISF for the years 2011–2015 to daily daytime outdoor temperature in 17 states and determined at which temperature RISF for air conditioning starts to peak, i.e. crosses a ‘heat threshold’, in each state. Using the spatial variation in heat thresholds, we explored whether people continuously exposed to higher temperatures show a lower response to heat extremes through adaptation (e.g. physiological, behavioural or psychological). State-level heat thresholds ranged from 25.9 °C in Madhya Pradesh to 31.0 °C in Orissa. Local adaptation was found to occur at state level: the higher the average temperature in a state, the higher the heat threshold; and the higher the intra-annual temperature range (warmest minus coldest month) the lower the heat threshold. These results indicate there is potential within India to adapt to warmer temperatures, but that a large intra-annual temperature variability attenuates this potential to adapt to extreme heat. This winter ‘reset’ mechanism should be taken into account when assessing the impact of global warming, with changes in minimum temperatures being an important factor in addition to the change in maximum temperatures itself. Our findings contribute to a better understanding of local heat thresholds and people’s adaptive capacity, which can support the design of local thermal comfort standards and early heat warning systems.

Tanya Singh, Christian Siderius and Ype Van der Velde. Environmental Research Letters, Volume 13, Number 5. 2018.