Floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and wildfires typically get most of the headlines (and create the most riveting images of nature’s fury), but when it comes to weather-related deaths, extreme heat actually tops the list.
The National Weather Service notes an average of 134 people died annually from heat, based on data from 1990-2020. That's well above floods (84 deaths a year), tornadoes (69), hurricanes (46), lightning (39) and cold. It's an important fact to consider, particularly at this time of year when heat and humidity are near their peak.
So we’re encouraged to see Charleston is on the front lines of research into extreme heat; it’s one of seven cities in a national study on heat islands — pockets where buildings and pavements make hot days feel even hotter. But our early start won’t mean much if our governments, nonprofit sector and medical leaders don’t build on this new research to improve our region’s livability and resilience to ever hotter days.
While we’re learning more than ever about our vulnerability to heat, our average temperatures continue to rise. Earlier this month, a report found that Earth’s climate is heating so quickly that in about a decade, the planet likely will exceed a level of warming that world leaders have sought to prevent; the United Nations called it a “code red for humanity.” Co-author Linda Mearns, a senior climate scientist at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, simply said: “It’s just guaranteed that it’s going to get worse.”
It would be understandable but wrong to adopt a fatalistic attitude toward such news, especially when much of global warming feels like it’s out of our hands, and there are so many factors to consider when trying to comprehend our weather. Our best response is to keep the big picture of our warming planet in mind, including the myriad causes, and to act when we have an opportunity — but also to work as communities, households and individuals to adapt to it.
It’s taking steps such as the city of Charleston quietly took a few years ago, when three of its departments began working together to monitor heat and then alert city employees about when outdoor heat was extreme enough to endanger their health. After all, the city has rules to take carriage horses off the street during times of extreme heat; its sanitation workers, park crews and others deserve protection and consideration.
The city also listed extreme heat as one of eight hazards (along with flooding, sea level rise, etc.) in its recent All-Hazards Vulnerability Assessment. Chief Resiliency Officer Mark Wilbert said the new research will help the city by pinpointing its most significant heat islands, places where it’s hottest and most dangerous to work. “It’s going to be part of the conversation going forward,” he said.
The study found that those most vulnerable to this extreme heat include the roughly 1,900 city households with people 65 years or older and about 2,900 households living below the poverty line.
As reporter Shamira McCray recently wrote, Dr. Hayley Guilkey, a pediatrician and founder of the S.C. Health Professionals for Climate Action organization, said elderly people have the greatest risk for heat illness, but children — particularly student athletes and infants — are also at risk. Though very hot days in late spring or early summer can be troublesome because we haven’t adapted much, heat-related illnesses peak this time of year, especially as organized sports start back up.
In 2018, the S.C. High School League and S.C. Independent Schools Association required schools to monitor the heat during outdoor activities in a new, more detailed way — beyond just temperature and humidity. These schools now use a wet bulb globe thermometer that factors in wind speed, sun angle and cloud cover to determine how long teams can practice during certain times of day.
Ultimately, our growing awareness of the dangers of heat also should shape how we build, maintain and improve our cities, especially public spaces. We would like to see cities and towns get even more aggressive about planting more trees, and ideally would like to see a local nonprofit formed specifically to help them do just that and spread the word about how an urban canopy can ameliorate the worst of the heat.
One example is the work of Dr. Jerry Reves, who retired as dean of MUSC’s School of Medicine and helped launch the MUSC arboretum in 2010. The initiative seeks to beautify the school’s Medical District campus much the way his alma mater, Vanderbilt University, had done since the 19th century. The MUSC arboretum effort has planted more than 400 trees plus countless shrubs, flowers and smaller plants to make the campus’ public space more welcoming and healthier. We hope the idea will spread across the district to other hospitals.
Dr. Reves noted that he had not thought much at first about how all the plantings might reduce any heat island around MUSC, though he knew they would help with drainage. “More recently, as global warming has become more prominent in our consciousness, it has become something we’re more focused on,” he said, “and every tree we have, particularly 20 to 30 years after it’s planted, will help us a great deal.”
More heat is coming. The time to adapt is now.