Hot zone: Covering the rise in heat waves

In the news: It was the hottest June on record for the lower 48 U.S. states -- 3.3 degrees above normal and a hair above a 1933 Dust Bowl-era record, reported National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last week. In the wake of Southwestern heat waves in June, unusually hot weather hit the East Coast last week, and a massive heat wave is expected next week.

Back story: Climate change means the U.S. will face average annual temperature increases of 3°F to 10°F by the end of the century, according to the latest National Climate Assessment. But climate change is not just about the worrisome rise in average temperatures -- it’s also about extremes. Climate models predict that U.S. summertime temperatures that ranked among the hottest 5 percent between 1950 and 1979 will occur at least 70 percent of the time between 2035 and 2064. Of course, heat waves are not just a U.S. problem. Europe’s 2003 heat wave caused an estimated 30,000 to 70,000 premature deaths, and last week scientists reported climate change was behind that deadly weather.

Adaptation angles 

  • Potentially dangerous health impacts from extreme heat include increased levels of illness and death, especially for at-risk groups like the elderly, the chronically ill, young children and the poor. These impacts could be lessened by measures such as providing greater access to cooling centers.
  • Urban heat, worsened by built surfaces and scarce vegetation, can be reduced by cool roof programs or more greenery.
  • In rural areas, increases in average temperatures and heat waves will mean enhancing water management to cope with drier soils and researching drought-resistant plant varieties to reverse lower yields.
  • And impacts of extreme heat on natural ecosystems require a better understanding of challenges such as increased wildfire risk.

Questions to ask

  • Are more heat waves coming to your community due to global warming? What’s been the average? What was experienced during any historical heat waves?
  • What are the particular vulnerable populations in your community? Do you have more seniors, more outdoor workers, more people with cardiovascular disease?
  • What community programs are in place to help those who can’t afford to buy or run air-conditioning units? Does your community have cooling centers and how do residents find out about them? Are there assistance programs to help residents purchase air conditioners?
  • What measures are in place to reduce urban heat, such as plantings or structures to increase shade; or white roofs, rooftop gardens or green alleyways to reduce the use of asphalt and other surfaces that hold heat?
  • What kind of agricultural practices, such as water management or drought-resistant crops, are growers using to address heat waves? Explore ongoing research into those practices.
  • What do heat waves and drought mean for forested areas in your region? Could they mean greater likelihood of insect infestations that weaken trees and raise risk of more wildfires?

Reporting resources

Dig deeper on the heat wave story using annotated heat wave-related resources in the Reporter’s Guide to Climate Adaptation database.

Know of other heat wave-related resources we should have in our database?

Posted by A. Adam Glenn on July 15, 2016