Coalition Calls for Naming Heat Waves Like Hurricanes

The group’s climate and health experts say naming and categorizing extreme heat events could save lives

A stop sign in Death Valley reads "Extreme Heat Danger; Walking after 10 AM not recommended"
Death Valley National Park saw a record-breaking 130 degrees Fahrenheit on August 16. The measurement might be the hottest temperature recorded on Earth since at least 1913, according to the National Weather Service. Mario Tama/Getty Images

A blistering heat wave is lashing the western United States. Just a few days ago, temperatures in Death Valley’s Furnace Creek rose to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. The measurement still needs to be verified by climatologists, but it could be the hottest temperature ever reliably measured on our planet, report Concepcion de Leon and John Schwartz of the New York Times.

Heat waves can be deadly, especially in Death Valley, where the National Park Service advised visitors to avoid hiking after 10 a.m. and to “travel prepared to survive.” Heat waves kill more than 600 people annually in the U.S., exceeding the death toll wrought by more visible extreme weather such as hurricanes, tornadoes or floods in all but the most exceptional years.

Yet, unlike severe storms such as Hurricane Maria, the silent scourge of extreme heat can ravage communities without being named or categorized. Now, a group of public health and climate experts are hoping to change that by championing the development of a system to give heat waves names and rankings just like hurricanes and tropical storms, reports Shannon Osaka for Grist.

The group, called the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance (EHRA), argues that naming and ranking the severity of heat waves would help raise awareness of their dangers, helping communities to prepare for them and hopefully save lives. In a statement, the EHRA states that heat waves are projected to impact more than 3.5 billion people globally by 2050 as climate change causes them to increase in frequency, duration and intensity.

Reporting for the Washington Post, Jason Samenow cites recent studies that suggest human-caused climate change is already responsible for cranking up planet Earth’s thermostat—with some parts of the world already getting so hot they become unlivable.

“Naming heat waves is the clearest way to communicate the dangers and severity of this risk which is growing,” Kathy Baughman-McLeod, director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center which organized the EHRA, tells the Post.

People over 65 and those with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes or Alzheimer's are at particular risk during heat waves, reports Jack J. Lee for Science News. Aside from the dangers of the heat itself, increased electrical demand from air-conditioning units can cause blackouts (as is currently on display in California) that can be life threatening for people who depend on medical devices or refrigerated medications.

Due to America’s historic and ongoing systemic racism, minorities are also at greater risk during extreme heat events, Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital and a member of the new alliance, tells Science News. Decades of discriminatory housing policies have resulted in communities of color disproportionately inhabiting the urban core of cities. In these so-called “urban heat islands,” the hottest days are exacerbated by oceans of blacktop and concrete that have been left unshaded by the absence of green spaces. Earlier this year, a study found that the segregated neighborhoods engineered by these racist policies, called “redlining,” are 5 degrees hotter than non-redlined neighborhoods across the entire U.S., reported Nina Lakhani for the Guardian in January.

Baughman-McLeod tells the Post that the idea of giving heat waves names came from the California Climate Insurance Working Group, which is headed by Ricardo Lara, California’s insurance commissioner. Lara, who has joined the EHRA, will seek to enact a policy of naming heat waves in California. Ultimately though, the project of naming and categorizing heat waves will require international cooperation and coordination from organizations including the National Weather Service and World Meteorological Association.

One of the most fundamental tasks before the international coalition will be crafting a definition of a heatwave. In the absence of an accepted definition, “we don’t have a common understanding of the threat we face,” Bernstein tells Science News.

But that task may not be a simple one, nor is creating a system for ranking heat waves’ severity. Larry Kalkstein, a professor emeritus at the University of Miami and an expert on heat and human health, tells the Post, “[t]he definition of a major heat event varies from one professional organization to the next. Is maximum temperature more important than minimum temperature? Is duration of the event most important? Our research finds that early summer heat events are more damaging to health than late summer heat events. How do you account for this in the rankings?”

The relative danger posed by a heat event is further complicated by the particular region’s humidity and the climate its residents are used to, Kalkenstein adds.

A crucial second step to naming and categorizing the severity of heat waves, according to Simon Mason, a senior research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University, is properly informing the public about how to respond.

“Unless we design management and strategies around this naming convention, we’ll be missing the main point of doing this,” he tells Grist.

Speaking with the Post, Baughman-McLeod acknowledged that there are important questions that still need to be answered. “We need to build a framework that’s robust enough to be meaningful,” she says. “The [heat wave] threshold needs to be at the right level and frequency, knowing there will be questions to get answered. It won’t be perfect, but we’ll refine it and learn as we go.”

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