As the climate crisis increases average temperatures around the world, new data has revealed that extreme heat is an increasingly pressing problem, surpassing other weather events in its deadliness.
Floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and even freezing conditions are dwarfed by the total number of fatalities that occur each year from extreme heat, according to findings from the US National Weather Service.
The public body found that 190 people died from heat in 2021, well above the 10-year average of 135. The next deadliest weather event was flooding, which claimed 146 lives that year, and 98 on average over the past decade.
Other hazardous weather includes rip currents, cold weather, and tornadoes, all of which were much more deadly in 2021 than the 10-year average.
Extreme heat events, evident in this summer’s record highs around the world, are likely to be both more frequent and more severe due to the climate crisis.
And other extreme weather events, such as floods, hurricanes and wildfires, are driven by the rising global temperature caused by greenhouse gas emissions mainly from the burning of fossil fuels.
In July, nearly every region of the United States was hit by persistent heat waves, putting more than 150 million people under heat warnings and advisories. More than 350 new daily high temperature records were tracked, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Last week, abnormally high temperatures in the Pacific Northwest led to at least 20 potential heat-related deaths.
But that pales in comparison to last year’s “heat dome” event in the Pacific Northwest, which killed more than 800 people in the US and Canada. The heatwave, in which the normally temperate region saw the mercury now well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), was thought to be 150 times more likely due to the climate crisis.
Extreme heat can cause serious health problems when the body becomes severely dehydrated or loses its ability to cool down. In minor cases, heat can cause fainting or convulsions – but in severe cases, extreme heat can cause heat stroke as the body rapidly reaches temperatures above 38C (100F).
Heatstroke can be fatal without emergency medical treatment. Some of the most vulnerable to heat illness are the elderly, young children, pregnant women and those with underlying health conditions such as heart disease.
In addition, heat can affect some communities more than others. Outdoor workers, poorer people and the homeless are all at higher risk of health problems from the heat, notes the World Health Organization (WHO).
A 2021 study found that in the United States, poorer neighborhoods and neighborhoods with more black, Hispanic, and Asian people were generally warmer than wealthier and whiter neighborhoods, which may place additional heat stresses on these communities.
In addition to the intense heat, climate experts also warn of dangerous increases in humidity or humidity.
“There are two drivers of climate change: temperature and humidity,” V “Ram” Ramanathan, a climate scientist at the University of California San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Cornell University, told the Associated Press.
Humidity, combined with the temperature on the thermometer, creates the “apparent temperature”, or how it feels outside. In addition, high heat and humidity can increase the “wet bulb” temperature – a measure of how much the body is able to cool down.
Scientists have warned that wet-bulb temperatures above 95F (35C) are “unsurvivable” for humans experiencing it for at least six hours. While occurrences of such high wet-bulb temperatures are still rare, they are becoming more common around the world, according to Nasa.
Much of the United States is facing a warmer-than-average August, according to the monthly outlook from the National Weather Service’s Climate Prediction Center.
Blistering temperatures returned to the central US this week, with temperatures hovering around or above 100F (38C) from Texas through South Dakota.
Much of the central US and Northeast is under a heat advisory as high temperatures combined with humidity will make it feel above 90F (32C) or 100F across the Northeast, Southeast, and Central Plains. Conditions in southwest Iowa could feel up to 45C on Saturday as heat and humidity push through.
On Thursday, both Boston, Massachusetts and Hartford, Connecticut broke their daily temperature records as the mercury reached 98F (37C) and 96F (36C) respectively.