Silent Killer

I’ve heard it said by some that global warming is not real because it’s cold outside. But is it real if it’s hot outside?

“Heat is already a leading cause of weather-related mortality across the country and is frequently called a ‘silent killer’ since its impacts on human health are often underestimated,” says Adam Kalkstein, a climatology professor and expert on heat at the U.S. Military Academy.

According to a 2016 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine extreme heat is one of the clearest signs of global warming. David Karoly, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Melbourne in Australia stated in a 2016 news release that, “The attribution of the increasing frequency and intensity of heat waves to human-caused climate change has raised awareness that climate change is happening now and already affecting some extreme events.”

If a newly released forecast in a Union of Concerned Scientists study proves true, in the years ahead, days with extreme heat will skyrocket across hundreds of U.S. cities, perhaps even breaking the “heat index.” See report

According to Rachel Licker, senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, “The rise in days with extreme heat will change life as we know it nationwide.”

“For example, in some regions currently unaccustomed to extreme heat – those such as the upper Midwest, Northeast and Northwest – the ability of people and infrastructure to cope with it is woefully inadequate. At the same time, people in states already experiencing extreme heat – including in the Southeast, Southern Great Plains and Southwest – have not seen heat like this,” Licker, a co-author said.  

Kalkstein, who was not involved in the research said, “The report highlights the very real threat of (human-caused) climate change increasing the number of dangerously hot days across the United States.” adding, “If the models used here are correct, this research leaves little doubt that the number of potentially dangerous days across the country will increase dramatically.”

For decades, temperatures around the world have been increasing in response to rising heat-trapping emissions from a variety of human activities.

The report concludes that failing to reduce these heat-trapping emissions would lead to a staggering expansion of dangerous heat.

Their results show that, with no action to reduce emissions, by midcentury the following changes would likely occur in the United States, compared with average conditions in 1971–2000:

  • The average number of days per year, with a heat index above 100°F will more than double.
  • More than one-third of the United States will experience heat conditions once per year, so extreme they will exceed the current National Weather Service heat index range.
  • Nearly one-third of the nation’s 50,000+ urban areas with will experience an average of 30 or more days per year with a heat index above 105°F,
  • The number of people per year exposed countrywide to the equivalent of a week or more of off-the-charts heat conditions is projected to rise from historically, 1,900 people to more than 6 million.
Carbon_temp

With no action taken by the United States in the latter part of this century (2070–2099), the following on average changes can be expected:

  • There will be four times as many days per year, with a heat index above 100°F.
  • At least once per year, more than 60 percent of the United States by area will experience off-the charts conditions that exceed the National Weather Service heat index range, presenting mortal danger to people.
  • More than 60 percent of urban areas in the United States will experience an average of 30 or more days with a heat index above 105°F.
  • The number of people exposed to the equivalent of a week or more of off-the-charts heat conditions will rise to roughly 120 million people, more than one-third of the population

Failure to adequately curb carbon emissions, Boston could have as many extremely hot days as Columbia, SC, has now. Chicago could have as many as Lafayette, LA.

Midwest and Northern Great Plains cities face many more days per year with a Heat Index above 100°F by late century. Historically, Minneapolis, MN has only 2 days on average. With no action taken the number would increase to 42, with rapid action only 13.

Likewise, by the late century sunbelt cities face more frequent days with a Heat Index above 105°F. Phoenix, AZ historically has 14 days above 105°F. That will increase to 97 without action on emission reduction, 57 if rapid action is taken.

In many places, extreme heat will lead to an increase in deaths or illnesses disrupt long-standing ways of life, force people to stay indoors, and perhaps even drive large numbers of people away from areas that become too unpleasant or impractical to live. 

What can we do about this?

“Rapidly reduce global warming emissions and help communities prepare for the extreme heat that is already inevitable,” co-author Astrid Caldas said.  “Extreme heat is one of the climate change impacts most responsive to emissions reductions, making it possible to limit how extreme our hotter future becomes for today’s children.”  

The report suggests several actions to prepare for the coming heat and take steps to keep people safe.

  1. The authors recommend heat adaptation and emergency response plans be developed
  2. Expanding funding for programs to provide cooling assistance to low- and fixed-income households
  3. Directing OSHA to set up protective occupational standards for workers during extreme heat
  4. For the safety of residents during extreme heat events require utilities to keep power on
  5. Investing in research, data tools and public communication to better predict extreme heat
  6. Bold action must be taken to “Reduce heat-trapping emissions and limit the frequency and intensity of extreme heat events in the future”
  7. Transitioning our energy system to low-carbon energy sources
  8. Ramping up energy efficiency; electrifying as many energy systems as possible across the transportation, buildings, and industrial sectors
  9. Investing in land use and forest management practices that help store carbon in soils, trees, and vegetation

To get to net-zero carbon dioxide emissions by midcentury, the United States must invest in these and other bold solutions alongside robust global action, to give ourselves the best chance of keeping global average warming below 3.6°F (2°C), in line with the goals of the Paris climate agreement – which we must re-enter.

“Rapidly reduce global warming emissions and help communities prepare for the extreme heat that is already inevitable,” co-author Astrid Caldas said.  “Extreme heat is one of the climate change impacts most responsive to emissions reductions, making it possible to limit how extreme our hotter future becomes for today’s children.”  

Sources
https://www.nap.edu/catalog/21852/attribution-of-extreme-weather-events-in-the-context-of-climate-change
http://assets.climatecentral.org/pdfs/WWA_NCARRelease_March2016.pdf
https://www.ucsusa.org
https://www.ucsusa.org/global-warming/global-warming-impacts/killer-heat-in-united-states
https://www.yahoo.com/news/breaking-heat-index-us-heat-080100770.html
https://www.esquire.com/news-politics/a28408603/climate-change-100-degree-days-heat-index-study/

Photo Credit: Heat Wave by Ben Taylor used with permission via Flickr

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