Record heat, climate change: What experts want us to know
The extreme heat and weather that’s plaguing much of the U.S. and many countries around the world may be just the tip of the iceberg as the world feels the effects, experts say, of accumulating climate change that’s leaving humans—and animals—to try to adapt, to stay cool and safe, the most vulnerable people often ending up in hospitals or dying.
Meanwhile, FEMA’s disaster relief budget is dwindling from responses to tornadoes, flooding and other extreme weather as record-setting temperatures raise concerns over insufficient power grids, in the south and north, and conversations and research seeking to understand causes and solutions and climate change continues.
Sue Anne Bell is a nurse practitioner and assistant professor at U-M’s School of Nursing. Her research focuses on the long-term impact of disasters and public health emergencies on health, particularly among older adults. She is clinically active in disaster response through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services National Disaster Medical System, including recent deployments in support of COVID-19 response, Hurricane Maria and the California wildfires.
She can speak to extreme weather preparedness and offer guidance on caring for oneself and the community, paying special attention to vulnerabilities such as age (infants and the elderly), chronic health conditions and pregnant women.
“On top of that, stress, fear and anxiety from the excessively hot conditions can affect health and well-being,” she said. “I like to frame what you can do during these times into two buckets: what you can do for yourself and what communities can do together to be ready. Taking care of yourself includes staying inside with air conditioning or fans on, staying hydrated by drinking plenty of water, talking to friends or loved ones when feeling nervous or anxious and knowing signs of heat-related illness. For the community, it’s important to check on your neighbors, especially those who are older adults, live alone or have health issues.
Bradley Uren is an emergency medicine physician and associate professor of emergency medicine at Michigan Medicine and sees a range of heat-related ailments, from minor to severe. Heat rash, sunburns and heat cramps can be safely managed at home, while more serious symptoms—racing heart, weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting—can signal heat stroke and require medical assistance, he says.
It is critically important to remember that the very young and the elderly are at higher risk of developing heat-related illness and extra steps to protect them during heat events is essential, Uren says. Additionally, individuals taking medications for blood pressure, heart failure and some medications for neurologic or psychiatric conditions can affect body temperature regulation. Seek medical advice on any heat-related risks of medication.
“The most serious heat related illness we see in the emergency department is heat stroke, which is characterized by many of the same symptoms seen with heat exhaustion but often accompanied by confusion,” he said. “These patients also have an elevated body temperature. This is a true medical emergency. Patients with these symptoms should be seen by a medical professional immediately.”
He adds that many of the conditions seen in the emergency department may have been preventable.
“Planning ahead by checking the weather is an important first step. Ensure that you are dressed appropriately for the weather. Plan to bring plenty of water. Have a plan to take breaks, seeking out air conditioning if possible or at a minimal shade and a cool breeze to ensure that you are not overheating. If you cannot insure frequent cooling breaks or otherwise avoid extreme temperatures it is best to cancel or postpone your plans.”
Jonathan Overpeck is an interdisciplinary climate scientist and dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability. He is an expert on climate and weather extremes, sea-level rise, the impacts of climate change and options for dealing with it. He served as a lead author on the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2007 and 2014 reports.
“Unprecedented heat waves around the globe are once again shattering records,” he said. “Ever more frequent, longer and more severe heat waves have long been anticipated by climate scientists as an increasingly dangerous example of human-caused climate change. People need to be extra careful when exposed to the heat and recognize that the only way to stop the situation from worsening even more is to halt the cause of climate change—primarily the burning of fossil fuels.”
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Richard Rood is a professor emeritus of climate and space sciences and engineering at the College of Engineering and a professor emeritus at the School of Environment and Sustainability. He is an expert on U.S. weather modeling and can discuss the connection between weather, climate and society. He is also a co-principal investigator at the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments, a federally funded partnership between U-M and Michigan State University.
“With the onset of El Niño and the persistent warming due to greenhouse gasses, we expect 2023 and 2024 to be among the hottest years experienced by humans,” Rood said. “As we enter into summer, the global oceans are at record warmth, and the Gulf of Mexico and the North Atlantic are especially hot. This virtually assures that we will see persistent heat, often flirting with historic records of duration and intensity.
“Associated with this heat will be flooding in wet regions and the rapid onset of drought in dry regions. This is not a one-off event, but the continuation of warming and an alert for us to move more aggressively on adaptation.”
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Alexander Rodriguez is a new U-M assistant professor of computer science and engineering, joining the College of Engineering next month. His research aims to improve predictions of heat-related death and illness with machine learning tools that incorporate critical information that can determine the impact of heat on human health, including weather, population health status, human behavior and the built environment.
With their human-centered approach, Rodriguez and his collaborators from Boston University, Miami University, Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Seville in Spain think they can better categorize heat waves according to their risk to human health and improve extreme heat advisories.
“You may have the same temperatures for a heat wave being more deadly earlier in the summer than the same temperatures later in the summer because people could have acclimatized to the higher temperatures,” he said. “Diseases can also play a part, for example, if a bad flu season precedes a heat wave, the heat wave could become more dangerous than you’d expect from temperature measurements alone.”
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