Thousands of American lives are in serious threat due to heat waves coming with the summer season that could kill almost 6,000 people in New York City or 2,500 in Los Angeles. Meanwhile, it will send tens of thousands more to emergency rooms across the country.
“Extreme heat conditions are defined as weather that is much hotter than average for a particular time and place—and sometimes more humid, too. Extreme heat is not just a nuisance; it kills hundreds of Americans every year and causes many more to become seriously ill,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or CDC.
Heat waves are one of the serious killers in America but are often underestimated. The CDC says that heat waves coming with extreme heat conditions causes “more deaths than any other weather-related hazard—more than hurricanes, tornadoes, or flooding.”
Other circumstances related to heat waves involve Americans experiencing acute heat illnesses that sends more than 65,000 people on annual average to seek treatment in emergency rooms.
The most common health effects (or symptoms) caused by extreme heat include heat cramps, where muscles spasms — often in the abdomen, arms, or calves — are caused by prolonged exposure in extremely hot situations while doing extensive physical labor. Further exposure (usually days long) causes heat exhaustion which would require medical attention.
The most serious illness related to heat waves is heat strokes. Heat stroke (or hyperthermia) occurs when the body can no longer regulate its temperature, and its temperature rises rapidly—up to 106°F or higher. It can also strike suddenly without prior symptoms and can result in death without immediate medical attention.
Historically, an estimated 1,000 people died in the 1980 United States heat wave and drought, which impacted the central and eastern United States. Temperatures were highest in the southern plains. Economic losses were $20 billion (1980 dollars). In 1999, record heat throughout the country resulted in 502 deaths nationwide.
Furthermore, heat waves can also be attributed to extreme dry spells that form a convenient opportunity for wildfires. Last November, the deadliest wildfire in California history killed 85 and burned the town of Paradise to the ground.
Over the decades, wildfire season in California has also grown longer, beginning earlier in the spring and stretching later, said Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire advisor with the University of California. “It’s not unusual for us to see this many small fires in June,” she said. “But 50 years ago, so many fires this early on, plus these extreme, high temperatures in June – would have been abnormal.”
Particularly, in urban cities like New York —with concrete and gravel in most of the surroundings, heat is trapped that will only increase urban temperatures. Consequently, it also traps carbon dioxide emissions which are touted to increase over the next decade.
Researchers are expecting that extremely hot seasons will only continue to worsen with more frequent heat waves. Moreover, the hot season will last longer and cause higher temperatures.
The figure above shows a projected analysis on the number of deaths caused by extreme temperatures—too hot or too cold—between the years of 2010 and 2100. Moreover, the map assumes that no significant efforts are exerted in reducing greenhouse gas emissions (“business as usual”).
Fortunately, new research by Eunice Lo, a climate scientist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, published in the Journal Science Advances states that all of the deaths could still be prevented if a global effort was exerted to honor the Paris agreement where global average temperature is maintained below 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) from pre-industrial levels.
“There is, actually, still hope, and a very small window of opportunity to keep global warming below international targets and prevent some heat-related deaths”
“Lo and her team looked at daily deaths from 15 U.S. cities between 1987 to 2000 to see how many people died from heart-related events. Then, accounting for population increases, they simulated heat waves that would occur in a world that warmed by 1.5 C, 2 C, and 3 C. Compared to 3 C (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) — which is where Lo says we’re likely headed if nations fail to commit to ambitious carbon cuts — many lives will likely be spared under the cooler alternatives,” describes Mashable.
“Los Angeles is expected to avoid some 1085 deaths during an extreme heat wave under a 1.5 C scenario, and 759 deaths under a 2 degree C scenario. Chicago would avoid around 875 (1.5 C) and 636 (2 C) deaths.”