When it comes to weather-related hazards in the United States, extreme heat takes a heavy toll.
Across the country, heat causes more deaths each year than any other weather event. according to the National Weather Service. This dominance has continued for decades, with heat-related deaths dwarfing deaths from tornadoes, floods, hurricanes and other weather hazards over the past 30 years.
Experts say this is a worrying trend as both the frequency and severity of extreme heat events are expected to increase due to climate change.
“We’re already seeing big impacts today,” said Chris Uejio, an associate professor at Florida State University who studies extreme heat and environmental health. “Heat waves are becoming more frequent, more intense, longer lasting and geographically widespread.”
Average surface temperatures around the world have risen as humans pump heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. As these baseline temperatures rise, heatwaves become more likely – and also more intense when they do occur.
Already this summer, temperature records were broken across much of the country, from parts of the Pacific Northwest to the southern plains, across the south to the northeast. A heatwave in July that blanketed a huge swath of the United States set more than 350 new daily high records, according to the report National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
But according to Uejio, it’s not just the sweltering conditions during heat waves that are a cause for concern. As the world warms, there are risks associated with chronic heat exposure, especially when combined with other socioeconomic stresses, he said.
“A lot of people live in places where it’s persistent and hot enough to be dangerous and that’s a problem, especially when people don’t have the financial means to keep paying for air conditioning,” he said.
Christa Stedman, paramedic and spokesperson for the Austin-Travis County Emergency Medical Services in Texas, said young children, pregnant women, people with certain pre-existing medical conditions and the elderly are usually at the highest risk for heat-related illness and death. Those who work outdoors and those affected by homelessness are also particularly at risk as temperatures rise.
“If you’re constantly exposed to the elements, don’t have regular access to food and water, and don’t have a way to cool off, you’re at tremendous risk of succumbing to heat-related illness,” she said.
Nonetheless, the consequences of extreme heat tend to affect some population groups disproportionately more than others. The latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that from 2004 to 2018, Native American and Black communities had the highest rates of heat-related deaths in the United States.
Geographically, these risks are often clustered in low-income neighborhoods in urban cities or in more rural parts of the country, Uejio said.
“Access to health insurance and healthcare facilities certainly plays a role in the higher rates we’re seeing among low-income households and also among people in rural areas,” he added.
Uejio said climate change is expected to impact human health in a variety of ways. For example, models show that rising temperatures and changing atmospheric conditions could cause more intense rainfall or create ingredients for stronger and more destructive hurricanes. But in many ways, the fingerprints of climate change are clearest and most immediate in extreme heat, he said.
“For healthcare, extreme heat is like our sea level rise,” he said. “We know it’s already happening and we have a pretty clear understanding that if we don’t do things differently, it’s going to get worse.”
Danica Jefferies contributed.
https://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/heat-waves-deadliest-weather-event-united-states-rcna41129 Extreme heat is the deadliest weather event in the United States