Naming, classifying heat waves could help prevent deaths

Thermometer in front of cars and traffic during heatwave
Photo credit Getty Images
By , KNX News 97.1 FM and Audacy

Today marks the first official day of summer, but millions across the country are already baking under a heat dome.

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A new system to classify heat waves by severity and warn people of their danger takes effect this week. It was launched in Spain, and so far four U.S. cities have agreed to test it

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The rising summer heat is a painful reminder for the family of Jollene Brown, who died last year during a heatwave in the Pacific Northwest. Her son, Shane, had bought his mother a swamp cooler, but it wasn't enough. The temperature inside her Portland, OR, home soared to 116 degrees. So did many other homes in what has been called a "mass casualty event."

"If I had heard it's going to be dangerous, then I would have taken it more seriously," Shane Brown said. "Like, maybe I need to get her to my place."

Heat waves are the deadliest type of weather phenomenon in the U.S. Excessive heat causes more deaths in the U.S. than any other weather-related disaster, including hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes combined. Moreover, scientists expect the number of deaths from heat to continuously rise due to climate change.

It's one reason experts have wanted to begin naming heat waves, hoping to observe the growing phenomenon and disrupts in deathly trajectory.

"If something is the silent killer it needs a P.R. tactic and some branding, and we believe that if we give them a name people pay attention," said Kathy Bachman, a climate change solutions researcher at the Atlantic Council.

The proposal would categorize heat waves based on severity, using a scale from 1-3. Variables include the heat index, nighttime temperatures, and the rate that heat has increased over the last 30 days. The scale, however, would vary by region. For example, a "category three" heat wave — the most severe — in Los Angeles would look different from a similar designation in Milwaukee.

"A jurisdiction like Bakersfield, CA, is going to have a much higher threshold because they're accustomed to hotter temperatures than people in Minneapolis," Bachman explained. "It's the same system, but it lets you adjust to the particular conditions in a city or in that jurisdiction, and it connects to the health expected outcomes of that community."

The new categorization system for heat waves launched Tuesday in Spain. Four U.S. cities have agreed to test the scale, including Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, and Kansas City, MO.

The Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center has spearheaded an effort to push the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the World Meteorological Organization to officially name and rank heat waves. So far, National Weather Service — run by NOAA — supports early warning alerts, but does not favor naming the events.

"[The National Weather Service] appreciates the value of continued research and engagement to further our understanding of and response to extreme heat and other weather events," the sub-agency told Axios.

A state report said that the 2021 heat wave broke records across California, with Sacramento topping out at 109 degrees; and the Coachella Valley having its hottest year ever, with temperatures reaching 123 degrees.

California could be the first state to establish a "red flag" early warning and ranking system for heat, first recommended by the California insurance commissioner. The State Senate will soon debate legislation passed by the State Assembly.

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