Threats Posed by Extreme Heat
Extreme heat can increase the risk of other types of disasters. Heat can exacerbate drought, and hot dry conditions can in turn create wildfire conditions. In cities, buildings roads and infrastructure can be heated to 50 to 90 degrees hotter than the air while natural surfaces remain closer to air temperatures. The heat island effect is most intense during the day, but the slow release of heat from the infrastructure overnight (or an atmospheric heat island) can keep cities much hotter than surrounding areas. Rising temperatures across the country poses a threat to people, ecosystems and the economy.
Extreme heat is one of the leading causes of weather-related deaths in the United States, killing over 600 per year more than all other impacts (except hurricanes) combined. The Billion Dollar Weather Disasters database compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lists heat waves as four of the top 10 deadliest U.S. disasters since 1980.
Heat stress occurs in humans when the body is unable to cool itself effectively. Normally, the body can cool itself through sweating, but when humidity is high, sweat will not evaporate as quickly, potentially leading to heat stroke. High humidity and elevated nighttime temperatures are likely key ingredients in causing heat-related illness and mortality. When there’s no break from the heat at night, it can cause discomfort and lead to health problems, especially for those who are low income or elderly, if access to cooling is limited.
Hot days are also associated with increases in heat-related illnesses including cardiovascular and respiratory complications, kidney disease, and can be especially harmful to outdoor workers, children, the elderly, and low-income households.
In extreme temperatures, air quality is also affected. Hot and sunny days can increase ozone levels, which in turn affects NOX levels. In addition, greater use of heating and cooling of indoor spaces requires more electricity and, depending on the electricity source, can emit more of other types of pollution, including particulates. These increases in ozone and particulate matter can pose serious risks to people, particularly the same vulnerable groups directly impacted by heat mentioned above.
High temperatures at night can be particularly damaging to agriculture. Some crops require cool night temperatures, and heat stress for livestock rises when animals are unable to cool off at night. Heat-stressed cattle can experience declines in milk production, slower growth, and reduced conception rates.
While higher summer temperatures increase electricity demand for cooling, at the same time, it also can lower the ability of transmission lines to carry power, possibly leading to electricity reliability issues during heat waves. Although warmer winters will reduce the need for heating, modeling suggests that total U.S. energy use will increase in a warmer future. In addition, as rivers and lakes warm, their capacity for absorbing waste heat from power plants declines. This can reduce the thermal efficiency of power production, which makes it difficult for power plants to comply with environmental regulations regarding their cooling water.
How to Build Resilience
- A set of strategies to build resilience to extreme heat are laid out in our publication, “Resilience Strategies for Extreme Heat.” Some strategies include:
- Creating heat preparedness plans, identifying vulnerable populations, and opening cooling centers during extreme heat.
- Installing cool and green roofs and cool pavement to reduce the urban heat island effect.
- Planting trees to provide shade and evapotranspiration cools the air around trees.
- Pursuing energy efficiency to reduce demand on the electricity grid, especially during heat waves.