Extreme heat is the leading cause of weather-related death in the United States.
Leaders in some areas are appointing heat czars to help combat dangerous warming.
Efforts include planting trees and naming heat waves to highlight the risks these events pose.
This article is part of the weekly Insider newsletter on sustainability, written by Tim Paradis, Future of Business editor.
It is sometimes called the silent killer.
We know the dangers of storms, fires and floods. We take cover, run to safety, or move to higher ground. But what to do in extreme heat?
Heat is the leading cause of weather-related death in the US, although most of these deaths are preventable. That’s because, like a driver speeding down a highway, many of us are unaware of the risks we face.
And as the planet warms, it’s as if more of us are stepping on the accelerator.
Extreme heat demands, and is now receiving, increased attention because human activity is setting the Earth’s thermostat higher and higher. Areas that routinely sizzle, like Phoenix, are appointing heat czars to orchestrate urban cooling efforts.
Cities and states are experimenting with plans to use severity scales to quantify heat waves and name life-threatening heat outbreaks, as Seville, Spain is now doing. It’s all an effort to generate the kind of attention we normally reserve for tornadoes and hurricanes.
It’s attention it deserves: the dangers of extreme heat can disappear in minutes or for several days. People most at risk include people who work outdoors, those who exercise in extreme conditions, the elderly, and the poor.
The most severe damage from heat waves is often related to higher temperatures at night. That’s because when it’s hardest for people to find respite from the extremes of the day, their bodies have to work overtime to get rid of the heat.
This is part of why heat, in some years, has killed more people in the US than hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and lightning combined. Heat-related illnesses include heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Hot weather can also inhibit breathing and put people with heart conditions at risk.
When Jane Gilbert became Miami-Dade County’s first heat director last year, she commissioned studies to understand who was most vulnerable in the region. The efforts found that areas with the highest land surface temperatures saw more cases of emergency department visits for heat-related illnesses.
Sections of the county with few trees tended to be hotter and poorer. Gilbert said higher income areas, by contrast, often had more prolific tree cover.
“They almost look like the same map,” he said, referring to the overlap between tree richness and abundance.
To reduce the tree gap, Miami-Dade County is working to increase tree canopy from approximately 20% to 30% by 2032. Some of the effort will be focused on areas with less vegetation.
The county gives away two trees a year to homeowners who want to help with the greening plan. The program includes instructions for planting and care. Still, not all young trees will thrive. Progress in increasing Miami-Dade County’s tree cover has proven difficult because some trees, new and old, are damaged by storms or lost when land is cleared for development. Still, drawing ordinary citizens into the effort is essential, Gilbert said, because the county can’t achieve its goal any other way.
“We only own a very small portion of the land. And if we’re going to get to 30% of the tree canopy, we need private sector involvement in that. We’re never going to get there without all the partners.”
Miami-Dade County gives away around 2,000 trees at each of its tree adoption events and, since 2001, has given away more than 215,000 of them.
It is advisable to take measures to cool down the so-called urban heat islands because we will probably face more hot days.
Noboru Nakamura, a professor in the department of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, identified unusual behavior in the jet stream that facilitated last summer’s historic heat wave in the Pacific Northwest that killed more than 1,000 people in the United States. and Canada. The phenomenon is called atmospheric blocking and involves the jet stream stopping over a region.
“When this happens, the weather stops changing regularly,” Nakamura said. “This is typically how extreme heat and flooding conditions occur.”
While extreme heat events are likely to increase, what is less understood is the role that Earth’s atmospheric machinery might play, he said.
“You may have unexpected behavior from weather systems and the inner workings of atmospheric circulation,” Nakamura said, “which is chaotic.”
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