Extreme Heat is the Deadliest Extreme Weather Event…and It’s Only Getting Worse

Climate change is impacting almost every aspect of our lives from the food we eat and the air we breathe to how often we need raincoats and the flora and fauna we see. The climate crisis has evolved beyond increasing the frequency of weather events and now has escalated the severity of those weather events. 

Toxic chemicals are spilling into our water. Hurricanes are bringing more rainfall to already over-saturated regions. And there’s not enough water to grow our food. But what do we do? Where do we start? How do we begin to prepare ourselves? We start by adapting to the most lethal problem… As intense as all of these ‘natural’ disasters are, extreme heat is proving to be the most lethal extreme weather event so far. And it targets our most vulnerable populations. 

The latest heatwaves that hit the United States in late July have caused havoc across multiple states, prompting infrastructure to fall apart, traffic delays, flash floods, and heat-related fatalities. The New York City Triathlon was canceled to protect would-be participants from heat exhaustion. While it is not unusual to have hot temperatures during the summer, the amount of areas affected at one time is very uncommon. And the US is not the only country experiencing this, with record temperatures hitting European cities like Paris and London, where air-conditioning is less common. Intense heat is causing wildfires in Spain and record-breaking temperatures in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. The recent heatwave in Europe is estimated to have caused 70,000 deaths across the continent. 

The hot air has continued to move north to Greenland, where ice is melting at incredible rates (twice as fast at the global average). This week, PBS News Hour reported that Greenland lost 11 billion tons of ice in one day to melting, causing what they termed a “climate change amplifier”  because as the surface gets darker with water, it attracts more heat which leads to even more melting. 

Chart by The Conversation via PBS News Hour

While many places are accustomed to hot days, the worry is that temperatures are not lowering in the evenings as they usually would normally, causing pretty extreme health effects

“In a typical year, heat waves kill more Americans than any other natural disaster including floods, tornadoes and hurricanes. While warm summer nights may seem less concerning than scorching afternoons, “the combination of high daytime and high nighttime temperatures can be really lethal because the body doesn’t have a chance to cool down during the nighttime hours,” said Lara Cushing, professor of environmental epidemiology at San Francisco State University.”

Kendra Pierre-Louis and Nadja Popovich in an article for the New York Times 

When the body can’t cool down, it triggers our body’s natural cooling process: sweating. But when it gets really hot outside, our sweat can evaporate before it cools our bodies down. Excessive sweating means your body is losing a lot of water and salt, which must be replaced with water and electrolytes or extreme exhaustion will kick in and your heart will begin to struggle as it tries to pump dehydrated blood through your body.  

Many people in these affected places are not accustomed to the constant heat and their bodies have more trouble adapting. People who work outside, the elderly, the young, and the sick are especially at risk as well as minorities who have been forced into neighborhoods with less access to water, green space, and elevation. Even the healthiest of adults can fall prey to dehydration. 

Beyond the physical effects, there has been a connection established between extreme heat and an increase in violence, suicide, insomnia, and a decrease in mental health and focus. People who already struggle with mental health or any form of addiction are more likely to feel these effects and the availability of water and air conditioning is the best way to protect against these struggles, according to the Psychiatric Times

The human body is not the only battleground against this extreme weather event. Bob Berwyn, an environmental journalist, in his article for Inside Climate News explained that “the challenges created by global warming are becoming evident even in basic infrastructure, much of which was built on the assumption of a cooler climate. In these latest heat waves, railroad tracks have bent in the rising temperatures, airport runways have cracked, and power plants from France to Finland have had to power down because their cooling sources became too warm.” 

Graphic created by Paul Horn July 28, 2018, via Inside Climate News 

Why are temperatures hotter than normal? The Washington Post indicated that “a study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences last year found a fingerprint of climate change in excessive heat events worldwide. Specifically, it found that climate change has heightened the chances for record heat across more than 80 percent of the surface area of the globe where there is robust temperature data.” Extreme heat is a result of a planet experiencing global warming, with temperatures expected to continue to rise in the near future unless humanity decides to pursue more eco-friendly and sustainable practices. The effect of global warming is even stronger in urban cities like New York City, where the heat island effect is very present. Because of a city’s construction and the sheer number of people living there, an urban area experiences higher temperatures than a rural area does. The EPA explains that a city of 1 million people or more can be 1.8 to 5.4 ℉ hotter than the area around it — New York City has a population of 8.623 million people as of 2017. This can result in higher energy costs, increased air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and water pollution. 

So, what can we do? The Red Cross has released a statement urging city officials to prepare for heatwaves increasing in frequency, intensity, and length and to improve heatwave reporting and awareness, especially when a one is predicted to occur. Beyond this, it is important to protect our most vulnerable populations by increasing access to spaces with air-conditioning and clean water. Check out the American Red Cross’ Heat Wave Safety Guide here to learn more about what you can do to be prepared. 

Header Image by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez for the Associated Press via AccuWeather

Catie Brown

Although I’ve always loved writing, I embarked on my journey into science journalism about three years ago. I am fascinated by all things water — oceans, ice, coral reefs, currents, extreme weather, sanitation, energy, and (of course!) climate change. I also love looking into the different ways we talk about climate change as a social, cultural, economic, spiritual, and political crisis. Big thanks to coffee and chemistry jokes for keeping me going. Happy reading!