Just about everyone has felt the effects of extreme heat this year. It does not matter whether you believe in climate change or not, you felt it. The likelihood of getting severe heat waves in coming years is growing as global temperatures continue to rise. What can individuals and policymakers do to deal with future heat waves?
Are we at risk of heat waves due to climate change?
The online Risk Factor tool tells me that number of days above 98 deg F temperature will steadily rise to 15 days per year in 30 years. What is more troubling is that number of days when temperature will hit 100 deg F will rise to 12 days per year in 30 years. This is true for the community where I live in New Jersey. You can check your own risk factors and determine risks for your area.
A heat wave is not a vacation day on Jersey shore. It is typically followed by extreme drought, wildfires, or flooding. A heat wave can increase demand for electricity as people power their air-conditioners to stay cool. The resulting strain on electrical grid can create massive blackouts and shutdown factories and businesses. Extreme heat can also impact food production as farmers stay indoors to stay cool disrupting global food supply. As we have seen in the past, food shortages can lead to political unrest in many parts of the world.
What can we do to deal with future heat waves?
Heat waves can be potentially dangerous to human health. Nature has devised ways to maintain our body temperature between 98°F (37°C) and 100°F (37.8°C) under normal weather conditions. For example, when the outside temperature increases our body reacts by releasing sweat, which cools the skin as it evaporates. This type of cooling is known as evaporative cooling which keeps our body at steady temperature. Evaporative cooling occurs as long as the humidity levels remain around 50% or lower. Unfortunately, as we have seen in recent heat waves, humidity increases along with extreme heat. The combined effect of heat and humidity – measured by the heat index – can reach dangerous levels during a heat wave. It is important to prepare now since the evaporative cooling process to cool the body through sweat will not work at dangerous levels of heat index.
It is also important to focus on adaptation to climate change since the problem is not going away anytime soon. Adaptation would include measures such as renovating structures to use passive cooling techniques that do not rely on electricity, purchasing breathable light-colored loose clothing, purchasing solar kits that can power lights and electronics when power goes out, monitoring temperature and relative humidity levels, checking up on neighbors and elderly residents and moving to cooling centers if the heat index reaches dangerous levels.
What can the government do?
Decision makers at all levels of government should focus on educating the public about dangers of extreme heat, setting up emergency alert systems, training first responders and setting up emergency cooling centers. Mobile Apps and alert systems for rapid outreach will be critical to keep everyone informed in case of an emergency.
They can also work with utility companies to promote renewable sources of energy and assure that the electrical grid will continue to function as demand for electricity spikes during a heat wave. One local utility company sent out an email this week stating that they are preparing by using smart technology, infrastructure upgrades, environmental stewardship, vegetation management, and continuously improving their practices. The email goes on to say that in spite of such efforts severe storms and other events can still interrupt power.
Businesses and non-profit organizations will also need to be prepared to deal with emerging threats due climate change induced heat waves and other disasters. A Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) will be critical to keep operations going when a disaster strikes. Clearly, everyone will need to get involved. This is a challenge that will require coordination and collaboration by all players.
- Check your home’s risk factor
- Research and gather resources to deal with heat waves.
- Review ideas on dealing with heat waves.
- Stay current with local alerts
- Identify nearby cooling centers
- Have an emergency plan ready to weather a heat wave