Summer is hot. It is one of the most basic weather concepts that we learn as children and no doubt come to terms with. Heat and even heat waves have always been a reliable feature of the season between the June solstice and the September equinox. And yet, recent times have far exceeded this norm. For most of the past week, the daily elevated temperature in Phoenix reached or exceeded 115 degrees, breaking records even in this desert town. This weekend, a “heating domeâIs expected to increase temperatures above 110 degrees in Washington, Oregon and Idaho, places whose physical infrastructure is not well suited to such heat.
Climate change is overturning old rules and disrupting predictable weather patterns: heat waves, forest fires, tropical storms and hurricanes – the winning trifecta of extreme weather events – are now coming sooner than expected, occurring with a greater frequency and intensity and extend well beyond their historical timeline. . But too few Americans think about heat waves, which claim more lives around the world than any other weather-related hazard, as a problem for which systematic and long-term preparation is warranted. To protect human life as temperatures soar, we must design what we might call heat season as a phenomenon distinct from summer– a part of the year that people in much of the country have traditionally regarded with great affection.
Historically, the wildfire season in the United States began in May and ended in October; however, forest fires raged until December of last year. The 2020 season, which included 30 named storms, was the most active ever. The annual Atlantic hurricane season officially begins June 1 and ends November 30. The emergence of Tropical storm Ana May 22, 2021 made 2021 the seventh year in a row that a storm strong enough to be named has formed out of season. Due to this early storm activity, the National Weather Service considered moving the start of hurricane season in mid-May.
Heat waves, too, come alarmingly early. Barely a week in summer, a dome of heat affecting 40 million Americans raised temperatures above 100 degrees not only in Phoenix but in places such as Denver, Salt Lake City and Billings, Montana. Places in the north that are not usually in extreme heat were hit even earlier. In early June, the town of Caribou in northern Maine experienced consecutive highs of 92 degrees. In the midst of the heatwave, neighboring towns sent students home, the Bangor Daily News reported, and at least one restaurant has closed its kitchen to avoid heat sickness.
The heat waves at the start of the season are probably more deadly than those later in a given summer. This is partly because people are caught off guard and less acclimatized to high temperatures and partly because, as gruesome 2012 The Washington Post noted article, heat attacks vulnerable people, “Leaving behind fewer people susceptible to future heat episodes.” Promoting public awareness and encouraging state and local governments to plan early for the problem, just as those in coastal communities do before each hurricane season, could save lives. This is why the organization that I lead, the Atlantic Council Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, urges the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and its National Weather Service to designate the months of April to October as the heat season in the United States. Doing so every year would help sound the alarm bells for impending emergencies, create a culture of preparedness, and improve communication with the public, much like the National Hurricane Center. planned to do when he started naming tropical storms and hurricanes in the 1950s. Indeed, our organization, along with a panel of scientific experts, is also developing a process for categorizing and designating individual heat waves intense enough to cause serious damage.
Right now, the best annual booster Americans receive of the risk of worsening high temperatures is National heat awareness day, observed annually on the last Friday of May. A stronger warning is urgently needed. A heat wave doesn’t burn millions of acres in a single event, tear off house roofs or cause massive flooding, but the heat wreaks silent havoc on health and economic well-being billions of people around the world. The effects are far more subtle, though no less pernicious, than the visible devastation caused by its more dramatic cousins. Data on heat-related mortality is also scarce as many of these deaths are attributed to other medical conditions such as seizures or heart attacks– that’s why many experts have dubbed heat the “silent killer.“
Meanwhile, the economic ramifications of heat waves become clearer every year. In 2017, ground flights at 120 degrees in Phoenix. In Washington DC, and London, rail service came to a screeching halt when the tracks melted. And during the pandemic, some New Jersey COVID-19 test sites had to closed due to high temperatures. According to the International Labor Organization, heat stress is also expected to reduce the total number of working hours worldwide by 2.2% by 2030, “a loss of productivity equivalent to 80 million full-time jobs”.
Miami doctor Holder Cheryl, an expert on the links between climate change, health and poverty, argued that heat is disproportionately endangering Older Americans, outdoor and manual workers, and black, brown, and native communities. One of her patients, she noted, is an elderly woman with chronic illnesses, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Heat waves lead to higher energy bills and force this patient to choose between paying for her asthma inhalers and keeping the air conditioner on.
The direct physical threat may be more acute in cities, where temperatures in a summer heatwave can vary up to 45 degrees from a well-shaded area to an area without trees. It’s another way poor Americans bear the brunt of grill temperatures. As noted by the association American forests, a map of the tree cover of American cities is in many cases an income and race map.
Communities can do much more to address these issues fairly. This spring, Daniella Levine Cava, mayor of Miami-Dade County in Florida, appointed the first heat leader focus on protecting the health and livelihoods of the county’s most vulnerable residents. My organization bears some of the costs associated with creating this role. We have also established the Alliance for extreme heat resilience and an offshoot, the City Champions for Heat Action Initiative, of which Miami-Dade is a founding member. The cities of Athens, Greece, and Freetown, Sierra Leone, also signed and appoint their own heat managers. We invite American cities to follow suit.
Despite some recent progress, Americans remain terribly ill-prepared for the growing threat of extremely hot temperatures and conditions. Vaguely assimilating Heat with summer, we have unwittingly hampered our ability to cope with the risks that a deteriorating climate poses to our social fabric, our economies and our environment. The hot season is upon us. We need to recognize our risks to manage and survive them, and this process begins with calling the silent killer by his real name.