HEALTH: ‘Extreme Heat’ Days Triple Since 1980s, and More Are Coming

dWeb.News Article from Daniel Webster dWeb.News

dWeb.News Article from Daniel Webster dWeb.News


By Amy Norton
HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, Oct. 13, 2021 (HealthDay News) — Urban dwellers around the globe are sweating through three times as many “extreme heat” days as their counterparts did in the 1980s, a new study suggests. The latest study to track humans’ increasing exposure to dangerously hot temperatures is Experts claim that the study examined what was happening more closely than any previous research and suggests that extreme heat exposure is much more widespread than previously thought.

By the researchers’ estimates, 1.7 billion urban dwellers — or almost one-fifth of the planet — were exposed to a rising number of extreme heat days between 1983 and 2016.

Those are the kinds of temperatures that raise the risk of heat illness even for healthy people if they are working or exercising outdoors.

To people who live in hot cities, it’s no news that it’s heating, said Cascade Tuholske (a Columbia University Earth Institute researcher in New York City).

It’s not that urban areas are the only places feeling heat, said Tuholske, who was a graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara, at the time of the study.

Cities can heat up because of a combination two factors: climate change, and the urban heat island effect. This is where heat traps in cities because there aren’t enough grass or trees, and too much concrete and asphalt.

Plus, more of the world’s population has been moving to urban centers — which, Tuholske’s team found, was an additional reason for the growing exposure to extreme urban heat.

The findings, published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, are based on data from more than 13,000 cities around the world. Researchers estimated population exposure to extreme heat days — which was defined as a “wet bulb globe” temperature of 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit) or higher.

That’s a measure that accounts not only for temperature, but also humidity, wind speed and cloud cover. It provides an indication of what it feels like to be outside in the sun.

When the wet bulb globe temperature reaches the 30 C threshold, a healthy person would start to feel heat stress after 30 minutes of working or exercising outdoors, according to the U.S. National Weather Service.

“It’s not only older people who are affected,” Tuholske noted.

His team estimates that during the study period, people in those urban areas saw a 200% increase in exposure to extreme-heat days. However, the effect was not uniform. Twenty-five cities accounted for one quarter of the increase in extreme heat exposure.

The top four cities were Dhaka (Bangladesh), Delhi, India, Kolkata, India, and Bangkok, Thailand.

Still, the problem was widespread, with nearly half of urban areas showing an increase in residents’ exposure to extreme heat.

The findings underscore the importance of gathering finer details on what city residents are actually experiencing, according to Dr. Mona Sarfaty, head of the Program on Climate and Health at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Some innovative projects are aimed at that, she said. For example, in Miami, researchers have equipped “citizen scientists”, with heat sensors, to monitor the temperature of their daily lives. At one bus stop, Sarfaty noted, the average temperature topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

While global warming needs to be addressed with broad changes — including less reliance on fossil fuels like oil and coal — local measures also matter, both Sarfaty and Tuholske said.

Cities can create more “green spaces,” Sarfaty said, not only to provide shade but also to help cool the air. Special coatings are being applied to asphalt in some cities like Phoenix to lower the temperature.

Local health departments and employers can also do more to spread awareness, Sarfaty said. A recent Texas study showed that a heat stress awareness program was able to reduce heat-related illnesses among city workers who work outdoors.

“People aren’t necessary aware of how quickly they can succumb to heat,” Sarfaty explained.

As with many other health conditions, Tuholske stated that low-income and marginalized individuals are most at risk because they work outside and don’t have air conditioning or other options to reduce their heat exposure.

There’s a particular concern, he noted, for people living in cities throughout the world that simply were not designed to sustain the large populations they now have.

More information

The World Health Organization has more on climate change and health.

SOURCES: Cascade Tuholske, PhD, postdoctoral research scientist, Earth Institute, Columbia University, New York City; Mona Sarfaty, MD, MPH, director, Program on Climate and Health, George Mason University, Fairfax, Va.; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online, Oct. 4, 2021

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