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Too Hot to Handle?

The arrival of fall promises cooler, more comfortable days, but the summer’s unprecedented wave of record-breaking temperatures left a searing impression on communities around the world.  A July Business Insider article warned “Heat waves are dominating summer, killing thousands, and fueling wildfires. The world needs to prepare for more.”


In September, temperatures hit 116 and 109 degrees in Sacramento and San Jose  – setting all-time records never before observed.  Other record-breaking September temperatures were seen in St. George, Utah which hit 112 degrees, and Big Horn, Montana at 108.


That same month, the Washington Post reported, “in just the past week, nearly 1,000 heat records have been broken.”


And in Europe, the United Kingdom issued its first-ever red extreme heat warning triggered when temperatures reached104F and extended drought reduced water levels in other countries to historic lows, exposing the wrecks of more than a dozen German World War II ships.


At status quo, climate and weather reports indicate that the world should prepare for a future more frequently affected by extreme heat. A recent analysis considering climate impacts at the property level predicts that climate change will influence the frequency, duration, and intensity of extremely hot days over the next 30 years so that by 2053,  107 million people will experience extremely dangerous heat. The most severe shift is expected in Miami-Dade County where the number of days with temperatures reaching 103°F, is expected to increase from 7 to 34 each year.


Increasing community resilience to extreme heat will require outreach to educate citizens about its real, and often disregarded, risks. Heat kills more people in the United States each year than any other weather event – including tornadoes and hurricanes.   Older people, pregnant women, infants, young children, and individuals with existing health problems are the most vulnerable.


Dr. Ari Bernstein of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health notes that “heat affects the human body in several ways. Sweating more can make us dehydrated…if there’s too much heat outside… the body temperature rises. And that makes our hearts, our lungs, brains, kidneys, and other organs not work well… even for people in generally good health, the heat can be really dangerous if we don’t pay attention”.  The most serious heat-related illness, heat stroke, occurs when the body can no longer control its own temperature and should be addressed with emergency treatment.


The likelihood of heat-related risk ties into geographic and demographic factors, as reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finding that extreme “heat exposure is highly unequal” and most severely impacts the urban poor.


According to the EPA, socially vulnerable populations are 40% more likely than others to live in areas with the highest projected increases in heat-related deaths. These citizens are also more likely to work in outdoor, weather-exposed industries such as construction and agriculture, and generally have limited access to air conditioning, making them even more vulnerable to extreme temperatures. Disadvantaged communities are also often situated in the hottest parts of cities that lack parks and other greenspace, amenities more often found in affluent areas.  Highly paved urban areas essentially draw in, and hold heat, creating what is known as a “heat island” effect.


In these instances, countering extreme heat is possible through strategic planning and redesign of urban environments. Planting trees creates shaded surfaces that may be 20–45°F cooler than the peak temperatures of unshaded areas, and increasing urban greenspace significantly reduces temperatures due to evapotranspiration. Evapotranspiration alone has been shown to reduce peak temperatures by 2–9°F.  Trees and green space also serve as natural climate solutions by absorbing carbon dioxide – mitigating climate change by removing this harmful greenhouse gas from the atmosphere.


Taking proactive measures and recognizing extreme temperatures can also prevent illness from the heat’s dangerous effects. To protect public health, communities should identify and advertise “cool spaces” open to the public – including community centers, local swimming pools, libraries, and shopping malls. Outreach by public health officials or other leaders should alert citizens to extreme heat days, remind individuals to stay hydrated, cool off with damp towels, and keep cool with an AC unit, fan, cool bath, or shower.


Covering windows with drapes or shades, weather-stripping windows, and doors, adding insulation to reduce heat buildup, increasing shady spots around your yard, and installing a reflective roof also help to cool homes and buildings while saving costs on air conditioning and electric bills.


By Bridget Washburn



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