Heat Waves

heat-wave The scorching heat waves are a preview of the more frequent and severe weather global warming is likely to bring.
The U.S. heat wave of 2006 was one of the worst in recent memory — not only because of its severity, but also because of its reach and length. It lasted nearly a month and swept across the entire country, cutting a swath of record or near-record temperatures from southern California to the East Coast. Hundreds of people died, crops withered, wildfires raged, roads buckled and electric grids struggled to provide power to sweltering customers. Tens of thousands of New York residents lost power for over a week.
Global warming doubles chance of “killer” heat waves
How does climate change fit into the 2006 heat wave? It’s impossible to pin a single weather event on global warming, since weather fluctuates naturally. Trends, however, are a different story. Climate models predict a trend of more wild weather. Global warming loads the dice to roll “heat waves” or “intense rainstorms” more often than milder “warm days” or “gentle rains.”
In July 1995 the climate dice rolled “heat waves” for Chicago. For Pauline Jankowitz, an elderly woman, the stretch of heat nearly cost her her life. As told in Eric Klinenberg’s gripping account, Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago, on the advice of a friend Jankowitz changed up her routine. She ventured out of her apartment when the heat became unbearable, caught an air-conditioned bus to an air-conditioned market and shopped until she felt rejuvenated. As she told Klinenberg, that time in July was “the closet I’ve ever come to death.” For others, it was too close—739 people perished.
Chicago’s temperature spike began July 13 when the temperatures hit a record 106 degrees Fahrenheit. The mercury didn’t fall below 90 degrees Fahrenheit for five days. In those five days, a lethal combination of high humidity and hot nighttime temperatures offered little or no escape from the heat. Vulnerable populations, such as the elderly and low-income people, were hit especially hard.
While Jankowitz was able to cool herself at home with wet towels, a fan and a rickety, old AC unit, 49,000 homes lost power—and air conditioning. The Centers for Disease Control later concluded access to air conditioning could have saved hundreds of lives. Instead, the morgue overflowed, and nine 48-foot refrigerated meat trucks were brought in to store the bodies.
Those who needed medical help often reached it too late, after heat exhaustion or heat stroke set in. By the second day, medical emergencies exceeded capacity. Ambulances drove around with nowhere to unload. About 23 hospitals went on “bypass,” meaning their doors were closed to new patients.
In July and August 1999, another scorcher hit Chicago. Because of lessons learned in 1995, the Windy City’s health and emergency systems responded much better. The 103 heat-related deaths that occurred were many fewer than in 1995′s tragedy. But losing dozens of residents to heat-related emergencies is still not acceptable, and with even hotter temperatures in the future, the death toll can be expected to rise.
Unfortunately, Chicago is just one example of our increasing susceptibility to heat waves.Heat waves have grilled other parts of the U.S. over the past two decades, with deadly consequences. A 1980 heat wave claimed 1,700 lives in the East and Midwest; in 1988 another East/Midwest heat wave killed 454 people; the 1995 heat wave also claimed lives in Philadelphia, Milwaukee and St. Louis in addition to Chicago’s losses, and in 1998, more than 120 people in Texas died from a heat wave.
The world’s deadliest heat wave on record struck Europe in 2003, considered the hottest European summer in five centuries. High temperatures broke records in many countries. England hit a historical high on August 10 when the thermometer in Gravesend-Broadness, Kent hit 100.6 degrees Fahrenheit. In Germany, an all-time record of 104.4 degrees Fahrenheit was set on August 8.
The extreme temperatures led to a tragic loss of life. A staggering 27,000 people died as a result of the relentless heat, breaking all records for heat-induced fatalities. In France alone, where hospitals were overwhelmed, more than 14,000 people died.
Survivors of the intense heat also suffered. Dehydration, heat stroke and fevers were common. Advanced stages of shock were hard to treat. Some suffered irreversible brain damage from advanced fevers.
Medical costs soared. The heat wave prompted the French government to fund an extra $45 million for elderly people and hospitals, and led French health officials to up France’s health spending by $6.8 billion over five years.
There have always been heat waves, but as the global temperature rises, heat waves like these are expected to become more frequent.


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