Extreme heat makes US-Mexico border crossings even more dangerous

Two migrant families from Brazil pass through a hole in the border wall to apply for asylum in the United States on June 20, 2021. Photo: Eugene Garcia (AP)

According to new research published earlier this month in Science, dehydration is already a leading cause of death among migrants crossing the border from Mexico to the US, and conditions will worsen as the climate warms further.

The study looks at a patch of land heavily used by migrants crossing the border between Nogales, Mexico, and Three Point, Arizona. The researchers compiled a database of deaths in this region over a period of nearly 40 years and narrowed it down to the hottest months of the year between May and September. They then used a biophysical model of human dehydration to calculate which points along that trajectory would be most lethal, comparing them to the map of the 93 deaths in their dataset; most of those deaths, the researchers found, correlated with the areas on the map where people would experience the most dehydration.

“We provide the first empirical evidence that the physiological stress experienced by people attempting to cross the Sonoran Desert into the US is sufficient to cause severe dehydration and related conditions that can lead to death,” Ryan Long, associate professor of natural sciences at the University of Idaho and senior author of the study, said in a press release. “[A] a disproportionate percentage of migrant deaths occur in areas where the predicted rates of water loss are highest.”

While people making the crossing usually carry water with them, the average amount they take with them isn’t enough to prevent the most severe cases of dehydration, the study found.

“Access to adequate amounts of drinking water to support the high water loss during the journey probably makes the difference between life and death for many migrants,” Long said.

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To better illustrate the conditions people may face when making the perilous crossing, the study cites people who immigrated from Mexico to the US describing the challenges of their travels.

“We died of thirst,” said Lucho, a 47-year-old migrant from Jalisco, Mexico. said in an interview in 2009. “I was hallucinating at the time. We were surrounded by earth, but I kept seeing water all over the desert.”

The heat at the border will only worsen due to climate change. Arizona is the fourth fastest warming state in the US and is already seeing 50 dangerous heat days per year, which will reach 80 days by 2050. To better estimate how much more dangerous border crossings will become, researchers connected models for future warming in the region, based on a mid-climate forecast, to a model of water loss over walking scenarios along the route.

“We believe that the journey of migrants will become significantly more dangerous in the next 30 years,” Reena Walker, a graduate student at U of I and co-lead author of the study, said in the release. Their calculations suggest that by 2050, people crossing the border on foot will increase their water loss during the journey due to higher temperatures by at least 30%.

The research comes to the frontier during a particularly turbulent time; in August, the US Border Patrol almost reported: 200,000 encounters with migrants along the border in July alone, a record in 20 years. CBP also reported 470 migrant deaths at the border between January and October this year, the highest number since 2005; 43 bodies were recovered after an unbearable heatwave in Arizona in June.

While migration between the US and Mexico is complex and influenced by many factors, climate change certainly is encourage migration, including the impact of extreme weather, such as two consecutive hurricanes last year, as well as displacement due to crop failure and drought. The crisis at the US border isn’t the only one exacerbated by the climate. Last year the UN defined climate change as a emerging threat already displacing people around the world, which will only get worse as the world warms.

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