Though extreme heat can kill more people than any other weather-related danger, there are still some big misconceptions about the risks.
The weather across much of North Carolina is, again, going to be brutally hot. So let’s talk about the risk of extreme heat and what to do to stay safe.
[Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in 2022, but it’s tips for staying safe are just as important any time it gets really hot.]
Climate change threatens our way of life. In 2021, the United States saw at least 20 natural disasters that killed hundreds of people and left behind billions of dollars in damage. The intensity and frequency of these disasters will only increase over the next few years.
The Inflation Reduction Act championed and signed into law by President Biden is, in addition to lowering healthcare costs, the largest national investment ever to fight these and other risks associated with climate change.
But many of the components of this new law are aimed at avoiding longer-term consequences, and will take time to make an effect.
What does climate change have to do with extreme heat?
Climate change is already affecting North Carolina, and periods of extreme heat may be the most immediate danger.
Though it might be a surprise in a state perpetually in the path of hurricanes, heat waves kill more people than any other extreme weather event, climate scientists say.
North Carolina is hot all over, but it’s worse in rural areas. And though older people are usually the most vulnerable in urban areas, it’s men between the ages of 15 to 45 who are most at risk here, Ashley Ward, the senior policy associate at the Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment and Sustainability, told us. Working outside on farms or on road crews where there may not be as much shade can increase the risk of heat-related illnesses based on the specifics of the area.
Yes, hot summers are part of the founding ethos of North Carolina. But many people are unaware of some of the dangers. Here’s a look at some common misconceptions about heat.
It’s the Heat and the Humidity
Thermometers tell only part of the story.
We all know that sweating is the body’s way to cool itself in high temperatures, but when the humidity is also high our sweat takes longer to evaporate, making our body’s best defense against the heat less effective.
So don’t look just at the thermometer when assessing a day’s risk, health officials say. You should also monitor the heat index, which takes both temperature and humidity into account.
And yet, even that metric can be misleading. Weather services often keep their thermometers in the shade to get as true a reading as possible. But if you are outside working construction or on a road crew, for example, you are in the sun, or on asphalt, or operating heavy machinery which adds its own heat to the burden.
All this together makes for a very dangerous situation that the standard measurements can’t fully capture.
The National Weather Service bases its heat warnings off of the heat index, Luke Parsons, a climate scientist at the Nicholas School, said in a recent press conference about heat dangers. But from 2014 to 2016 almost 70% of heat-related fatalities on job sites in the US took place on days that did not merit a heat index warning, he said.
Overnight Temperatures Are Important, Too
Hot days don’t seem as hateful if you can cool yourself down at night. But if nighttime temperatures don’t fall below 75 degrees, heat experts say, the body can’t recover. Prolonged periods of warm nights can be just as dangerous over time.
“We are increasingly seeing a strong connection between poor health outcomes and persistently high overnight temperatures,” Ward said.
And while people tend to heed heat warnings during the day—avoiding the hottest hours or canceling outdoor events—there’s no escape, she said, from having no escape from the heat at night.
“High overnight temperatures mean that those who don’t have an air conditioner or can’t afford to run their air conditioner,” she said, “are particularly vulnerable.”
Prolonged exposure to hot days and nights, she said, can “trigger a cascading set” of conditions that could, in just a couple of days, lead to heatstroke, even if you avoided the hottest part of the day.
Local Solutions Matter as Much as National Policy
To help solve the climate change problem, Ward said, officials must improve communication between the federal, state, and local levels.
The Inflation Reduction Act has provisions to make this communication easier, which is especially important when addressing heat issues that affect communities in varying ways.
Small towns have to have a say in the solution, she said.
High capacity cooling centers, for example, are useful in cities, but aren’t effective in rural areas, Ward said, when residents would have to drive long distances to get to them.
“That wouldn’t be a solution that you would put in place in, say, the sand hills in North Carolina,” she said, “so it’s really important that communities are able to have the input.”
She added: “It’s a big piece of the puzzle.”