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We should start giving names to extreme heat waves

Extreme heat kills more Americans each year than other disasters, but the public isn’t as wary of it. More publicity could help.

We should start giving names to extreme heat waves
[Image: Partner & Partners/courtesy Urban Design Forum]
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As a prolonged heat wave bakes states like Florida and Texas, it’s happening at the same time as coronavirus cases spike, which means people are stuck at home. If they don’t have air-conditioning, it’s likely to lead to early deaths: Extreme heat kills more Americans each year than disasters like hurricanes, tornadoes, or floods, and as climate change progresses, the problem is getting worse. But heat waves rarely get as much attention as something like an approaching tropical storm.

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In New York City, a new report called Turning the Heat from the nonprofit Urban Design Forum looks at creative ways to deal with the fact that the city is getting hotter. One simple suggestion: Give serious heat waves names.

[Image: Partner & Partners/courtesy Urban Design Forum]
“When a hurricane gets named, there’s this association that there’s the sense of impending emergency, so therefore I need to act to stay safe,” says Mallory Taub, an associate and sustainable design specialist at the design and architecture firm Gensler who was one of a group of fellows who studied the effects of extreme heat on some of the most vulnerable neighborhoods in New York for the report and proposed a list of potential solutions. Naming a heat wave “elevates it to that same level, I think, in terms of people’s understanding of there being an emergency and it requiring a response.”

The effects of extreme heat are less visible than other disasters, and since summers are already hot, people often underestimate the danger. Adding to this is that when heat kills, deaths aren’t always tracked. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that between 2004 and 2018, an average of around 700 Americans died each year because of excessive heat. And while that’s far more than other disasters, other research suggests that it’s a massive undercount: One recent study put the number at as high as 12,000 deaths a year. The CDC data only tracks deaths with heat illness listed in death certifications, while many others die because heat worsens another illness, like heart disease. One particularly deadly heat wave in the U.S. in 1980 may have indirectly killed 10,000 people in a single event.

[Image: Partner & Partners/courtesy Urban Design Forum]
The Urban Design Forum report includes a long list of ways that cities like New York can tackle the problem of heat, from design interventions like adding green roofs or retrofitting facades on the city’s aging buildings to more creative suggestions like pop-up pools and forests (in a block party-like idea, potted trees could be trucked into a neighborhood to provide temporary shade). Moveable shades could be added to public housing, and larger tents could provide shade in front of buildings. Street trees and rain gardens along sidewalks can make walking in the heat more comfortable. But “it’s not just about design interventions—there need to be policy interventions,” says Pallavi Mantha, a senior carbon and sustainability consultant at the design and engineering firm Arup and another fellow on the project. That involves, among other things, changes in how the government communicates about heat waves.

Others have echoed the idea that heat waves should be officially named. In the U.K., as the country faced the hottest day on record last summer, experts from the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science made the same argument. “Far more people in the UK have died from recent heat waves than from storms, so it should be uncontroversial to start applying names to both,” Bob Ward, the institute’s director of policy, told CNN. At least one major heat wave did get a nickname—”Lucifer,” which roasted Europe in 2017. But it doesn’t regularly happen.

The challenge is only going to get more daunting. By the 2080s, heat waves in New York City are expected to triple. (Look up predictions for your own location here.) Someone who grew up in the city in the 1980s might have experienced two days a year with temperatures over 100 degrees, but by later this century, 42 days a year might be that hot. “We’re headed in a hotter direction,” says Taub. “But I think that these strategies—whether it’s through green infrastructure or better building design, or innovation, or policy—will help reduce the impact.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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