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The Big Heat

THE BIG HEAT

This week marks Atlanta’s peak heat period, when it typically experiences its hottest temperatures of the year according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This week has historically been the hottest week of the year in Atlanta, and records seem to indicate that the temperatures during July 16-20—and over the summer as a whole—are growing hotter. A look at the heat trends in the world, in the United States, and particularly in Georgia might shed some light on whether global warming is indeed warming Atlanta.

INDIA: A CASE STUDY

In 2015, India experienced a heat wave that killed 2,300 people. In 2016, India endured another heat wave that impacted 330 million people—one third of the country’s population. Temperatures reached as high as 124 degrees Fahrenheit (51 degrees Celsius). The impact was so widely felt because excessive heat has so many repercussions. The deep drought and severe water shortages took their toll on the country’s farmers, causing thousands of distressed rural farmers and laborers to commit suicide, tens of thousands of farm animals to die, crops to perish, rivers, lakes and ponds to dry up, and groundwater tables to sink.

This year, India is on track for a one degree temperature increase over the summer months, which would mean another record-breaking summer of deadly heat. As of this month, 1,400 people have already died from the extreme heat. Even a small temperature increase causes a huge increase in the probability of a massive heat-related mortality event—defined by more than 100 deaths. For example, India’s average temperatures rose .9 degrees Fahrenheit between 1960-2009, and the probability of a massive heat-related mortality event skyrocketed by 146%.

India is not alone. In late May into early June, much of Asia was gripped by a deadly heat wave. On May 28, 2017, in southwest Pakistan, the world’s hottest-ever temperature was recorded for the month of May: a whopping 128.3 degrees Fahrenheit (53.5 degrees Celsius).

THE UNITED STATES

What does all of this mean closer to home? First, it should be noted that the temperatures recorded in Asia are similar to those being recorded in the southwest U.S. this year. For three straight days in June, Phoenix saw temperatures of 115 Fahrenheit and above, and on July 7, Phoenix set a new record for the highest temperature ever recorded in that city at 118 degrees. In fact, excessive natural heat killed close to 1,300 people in Arizona from 2005-2015.

Once again, the impacts of excessive heat are far-reaching. The high temperatures are causing drought, which in turn has led to massive wildfires over the entire western U.S. In Arizona, Governor Ducey has declared a state of emergency; Arizona has had more than a dozen wildfires since April of this year. Arizona has also seen a spike in heat-related illnesses due to the unprecedented temperatures. Emergency department doctors report illness from minor ailments such as heat rashes to major heat complications such as heat-strokes.

DANGER DAYS

Heat is the number one weather-related killer in the United States—not floods, hurricanes or tornadoes. The mix of heat and humidity at 104 degrees Fahrenheit is what is referred to as a “Danger Day.” Danger Days set the stage for heat exhaustion, sunstroke, and other life-threatening conditions, especially for the young, the elderly, and those with existing health issues. In the future, the number of Danger Days will rise, particularly in the southern states, and particularly around the Gulf Coast. Many cities in states near the coast could see as many as 100+ Danger Days annually by 2050.

For Georgia, Danger Days could increase significantly as this century progresses. 2016 was the second hottest summer ever recorded in Atlanta, and records go back to 1887 (the summer of 1980 was the hottest). A recent study predicts that by 2100, Atlanta will see 94 Danger Days, or days with temperatures at or above 95 degrees and high humidity. The current average is 7 days, meaning that this century would bring an increase of 13 times as many Danger Days to Atlanta. The hotter weather will bring drought and water shortages. It will reduce the air quality. It will bring heat-related illnesses. Already, over 600 deaths occur every year in the U.S. due to excessive heat according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

BEAT THE HEAT

To combat the heat, follow these safety tips:

  1. Spend time in locations with air conditioning
  2. Drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids, especially water and diluted sports drinks
  3. Wear light-weight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing
  4. Limit outdoor activity to morning and evening hours
  5. Protect yourself from sun exposure with sunscreen and hats with brims

Combatting the heat on a global scale won’t be so easy. 2016 was the hottest year on record for the third straight year; 2017 may not win that award and make a fourth straight year of record-setting heat due to the effects of El Nino. But the average global temperature is rising nonetheless. With thousands of people dying every year, and millions more impacted by drought, famine, illness and wildfire, the challenge of how to beat the heat is upon us. What will we do? Will we meet the challenge?

A good topic in this week of heat in Atlanta.

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