Get ready for some serious burns and the instantaneous death of organisms. Let’s turn up the heat and bring the entire planet to a boil for five whole seconds. How would this apocalyptic heat wave affect the environment? What would this do to all living things on Earth? And would you be doomed to explode from the inside out?
Though you might complain about roasting in the blistering heat of a summer day, the average temperature of Earth is around 13.9 °C (57 °F ). Compare that to the hottest places on the planet, like China’s Flaming Mountains or Iran’s Lut Desert, which have recorded land temperatures at around 70 °C (158 °F).
That’s still not nearly as hot as a cup of boiling hot tea. Water reaches its boiling point at 100 °C (212 °F). This is the point where liquid water turns into water vapor. With 71% of Earth’s surface covered in water, life is about to feel like you’re stuck inside one giant kettle. If temperatures suddenly spiked, you wouldn’t necessarily need to worry about everything going up in flames.
At least not right away. Wood ignites at around 300 °C (572 °F). And while you could be imagining that all the water in the oceans would suddenly boil away, don’t worry, that wouldn’t happen either. That’s because the deeper you go into the ocean, the higher the pressure. And this affects the boiling temperature.
Already at 10 m (32 ft) below the water’s surface, the boiling point becomes closer to about 120 °C (248 °F). So not all the ocean water on Earth would turn into vapor. But in the steamy shallow waters, most living organisms, plants and animals would likely spend these five seconds boiling to death. Maybe only thermophiles, microorganisms that thrive at temperatures up to 108 °C (226 °F), would survive unscathed.
You wouldn’t enjoy this brief apocalyptic window of time very much either. The steam would scald your skin and seriously injure your eyes. Even just taking a breath during this time could cause mucous membranes in your mouth, nose and throat to suffer severe burns. If these burns were deep enough to destroy tissues, you could end up developing rhabdomyolysis.
This condition could result in permanent damage to your heart and kidneys. Or even death. But that’s not even the worst. There’s also a lot of ready-to-boil water somewhere else. Your body. That’s because it’s about 60% water. If this was to turn into steam, you’d know it. Your body’s water would suddenly increase in volume by 1,600 times. What would happen then?
Well, you and anything else that has water inside it would simply explode from the inside out. But maybe you’d be lucky and five seconds wouldn’t be enough to detonate you. That wouldn’t mean life following the worst heat wave imaginable would go right back to normal. Immediately after the five seconds, the global temperatures would drastically drop simultaneously.
And all that water vapor would transform back into liquid. You’d better be prepared for some crazy flash flooding and extreme weather. And that steam turning back into water would bump the temperatures in the surrounding environment. Things could heat back up enough that polar ice caps and glaciers would melt even faster.
When all that ice disappeared, the sea levels would rise by about 70 m (230 ft). Even though Earth would only have boiled for about the same amount of time it takes for one big yawn, it would create circumstances where major cities around the world could become flooded and uninhabitable. Millions of people could die in the aftermath. And that’s if they didn’t already turn into spontaneous steam bombs.
- “What Percent Of Earth Is Water?”. Matt Williams. 2014. phys.org.
- “What Is Earth’s Average Temperature?”. Vicky Stein, Tim Sharp. 2022. space.com.
- “An Overview Of Steam Burns”. Rod Brouhard, EMT-P. 2022. verywellhealth.com.
- “The Water in You: Water and the Human Body”. 2019. usgs.gov.
- “Where Are The HOTTEST Places In The World? – CBBC Newsround”. 2022. bbc.co.uk.