Heatwaves: how cities are trying to cope with new extremes

Temperatures broke June records around the world, from leafy streets in the southern United States to the domes of the Vatican. Japan recently experienced its very first day of June at 104 degrees. A port city in Iran sweltered for days in 122 degree heat. It was even hot above the Arctic Circle, where thermometers in the Russian city of Norilsk hit record highs near 90 degrees.

Generally, a heat wave occurs when abnormally high heat persists for two or more days. It is not only a question of heat, but also of the unusual nature of this temperature. Even in a state like Nevada that’s used to triple-digit summers, 115-degree stretches can cause distress.

Why we wrote this

Heat waves are getting hotter, longer and more frequent around the world. Here’s what communities are doing to beat the heat and protect public health, including for the most vulnerable populations.

People who spend their days outdoors or who do not have access to air conditioning – for example, day laborers or the homeless – are increasingly vulnerable.

Solutions in the United States and around the world include measures such as planting urban trees for shade and painting roofs white to reflect heat. Cooling stations in places like libraries and community centers provide vital shelter. Some US cities have heat officials or enhance outreach to non-English speakers, to increase awareness of heat warnings and resources.

It’s hot there, and it’s getting hotter and hotter.

Temperatures broke June records around the world, from the leafy streets of the southern United States to the domes of the Vatican. Japan recently experienced its very first day of June at 104 degrees. Cities across Iran sweltered for days in 122 degree heat. It was even hot above the Arctic Circle, where thermometers in the Russian city of Norilsk hit record highs near 90 degrees.

In the United States, New England and Western Mountain states will experience unusually high heat through late summer, according to analysis by the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center.

Why we wrote this

Heat waves are getting hotter, longer and more frequent around the world. Here’s what communities are doing to beat the heat and protect public health, including for the most vulnerable populations.

These extreme heat waves pose serious public health problems. A heat wave that began a year ago this week in the Pacific Northwest has claimed hundreds of lives. And the World Health Organization attributes 166,000 deaths worldwide to heat waves over a period from 1998 to 2017.

Modern comforts like air conditioning have mitigated the worst effects of the heat. Over the past 50 years, for example, heat-related deaths in the United States have generally declined, according to a 2021 study. But the same study warns that over the past decade the decline has slowed and may -be even started to reverse.

As heat waves get longer, hotter and more frequent, scientists and officials are exploring ways to keep people safe.

THE SOURCE: International Research Institute for Climate and Society

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Jacob Turcotte/Staff

What is a heat wave?

There is no single definition, but generally a heat wave occurs when abnormally high heat persists for two or more days. It is not only a question of heat, but also of the unusual nature of this temperature. Even in a state like Nevada that’s used to triple-digit summers, 115-degree stretches can cause distress.

Consecutive days of extreme heat, when nighttime temperatures remain high, exacerbate vulnerabilities. “The most dangerous part,” says P. Grady Dixon, a professor at Fort Hays State University and author of this 2021 study, “is the lack of cooling.”

Who is most vulnerable to extreme heat?

Historically, the elderly have been most at risk. However, over the past few decades they have benefited greatly from the spread of air conditioning and more effective messages to deliver heat warnings. According to Dr. Dixon, their safety has helped improve US health statistics on heat hazards.

But not everyone can enjoy air conditioning. For example, homeless people or day laborers who spend their days outdoors are increasingly vulnerable to extreme heat.

Cityscapes can also make the heat worse. Asphalt streets, tightly packed buildings, lack of green spaces and gasoline engines create what are known as urban heat islands. This is evident in Boston, where a 2019 city study found the downtown Chinatown neighborhood to be up to 12 degrees warmer than leafier suburbs.

How to ensure the safety of people?

The simplest and most important step towards safety is knowing when there is a risk.

“When the weather [on your phone] is a smiling face or a rain cloud, it’s not enough,” Dr. Dixon insists. “Look up the National Weather Service and heed their heat warnings.”

Kimberly McMahon, program manager at the National Weather Service, says the agency is working to develop even better warning tools that can identify what’s dangerous for specific areas or populations.

Another priority is to ensure that these messages reach everyone who needs them, including non-English speakers and people who spend their days working outside.

“We have produced video public service announcements in English and Spanish. Radio in English, Spanish and Creole. Billboards at bus stops, especially targeting zip codes with the most intense heat,” says Jane Gilbert, a Miami official.

Ms. Gilbert is herself an example of how cities are pushing to mitigate the heat. She is the Miami-Dade County Heat Director, a position created to coordinate efforts to cool cities. Ms. Gilbert was the first, appointed in June 2021, and Phoenix and Los Angeles have each appointed since.

Another step towards safety is keeping vulnerable people out of harm’s way.

Erick Bandala of the Nevada Desert Research Institute says the places ‘need stricter regulations [to protect] workers who have no choice but to go over there and even work on a 110, 115 [degree day].”

Communities across the country have opened cooling stations: libraries, community centers, senior centers and other places open to anyone who needs shelter from the dangerous heat outside.

Cities also perform more permanent transformations. Since 2009, New York City has painted tens of thousands of dark rooftops white to keep them from absorbing so much heat. And Los Angeles began covering its endless asphalt streets with reflective coating.

Meanwhile, almost every city is working to plant more trees, which provide much-needed shade. “We’re donating over 10,000 trees this summer,” says Gilbert, continuing local initiatives that have planted more than 218,000 trees since 2001.

In some ways, the United States is catching up with places like Singapore that have long pledged to fight the heat. The equatorial country has central cooling systems, rooftop gardens and greenery that scales the sides of tall buildings.

Kathy Baughman McLeod, director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation’s Center for Resilience at the Atlantic Council in Washington, sees hope in her work promoting heat mitigation efforts around the world.

“There are many aspects of climate change that seem intractable,” she says, “but this is not one of them.”