By Dr. Joel N. Myers, AccuWeather Founder and CEO
A story came to my attention recently that merited comment. It appeared in London’s The Telegraph, and was headlined, “Give heat waves names so people take them more seriously, say experts, as Britain braces for hottest day.”
The story’s leaping-off point was a press release from the London School of Economics (LSE), which noted, “A failure by the media to convey the severity of the health risks from heat waves, which are becoming more frequent due to climate change, could undermine efforts to save lives this week as temperatures climb to dangerous levels.”
It added, “So how can the media be persuaded to take the risks of heat waves more seriously? Perhaps it is time … to give heat waves names [as is done] for winter storms.”
We disagree with some of the points being made.
First, and most important, we warn people all the time in plain language on our apps and on AccuWeather.com about the dangers of extreme heat, as well as all hazards. Furthermore, that is the reason we developed and patented the AccuWeather RealFeel® Temperature and our recently expanded AccuWeather RealFeel® Temperature Guide, to help people maximize their health, safety and comfort when outdoors and prepare and protect themselves from weather extremes. The AccuWeather RealFeel Temperature Guide is the only tool that properly takes into account all atmospheric conditions and translates them into actionable behavior choices for people.
Second, although average temperatures have been higher in recent years, there is no evidence so far that extreme heat waves are becoming more common because of climate change, especially when you consider how many heat waves occurred historically compared to recent history.
New York City has not had a daily high temperature above 100 degrees since 2012, and it has had only five such days since 2002. However, in a previous 18-year span from 1984 through 2001, New York City had nine days at 100 degrees or higher. When the power went out in New York City earlier this month, the temperature didn’t even get to 100 degrees – it was 95, which is not extreme. For comparison, there were 12 days at 95 degrees or higher in 1999 alone.
Kansas City, Missouri, for example, experienced an average of 18.7 days a year at 100 degrees or higher during the 1930s, compared to just 5.5 a year over the last 10 years. And over the last 30 years, Kansas City has averaged only 4.8 days a year at 100 degrees or higher, which is only one-quarter of the frequency of days at 100 degrees or higher in the 1930s.
Here is a fact rarely, if ever, mentioned: 26 of the 50 states set their all-time high temperature records during the 1930s that still stand (some have since been tied). And an additional 11 state all-time high temperature records were set before 1930 and only two states have all-time record high temperatures that were set in the 21st century (South Dakota and South Carolina).
So 37 of the 50 states have an all-time high temperature record not exceeded for more than 75 years. Given these numbers and the decreased frequency of days of 100 degrees or higher, it cannot be said that either the frequency or magnitude of heat waves are more common today.
Finally, there is the question of whether heat waves should be named. That’s an easy one: I oppose naming heat waves.
If such warnings existed, what would be the cutoff point or the boundary line? A heat wave in one state is not in another? In other words, if you say the criteria is where the AccuWeather RealFeel Temperature is above some number, what happens in a nearby location that is one degree below the cutoff number? Of course some people still may be at risk because there is variability of risk. An AccuWeather RealFeel Temperature of 95 may be a risk to infants and the elderly but minimal risk to others. And if the cutoff is set too low, the naming of heat waves would become so frequent it would be meaningless and ultimately will undermine the credibility of meteorologists.
What else are these people going to suggest we name? Hurricanes and tropical storms already get names and they have since the 1940s, and the names are selected by international agreement. Yet, even for them, the criteria of whether and when to name a particular storm or not has left some leeway to the judgment of forecasters at the National Hurricane Center. If we were to name heat waves, should we also name cold waves, high wind events, pollution events? What about whiteouts due to blowing snow? All that would do is cause more confusion. AccuWeather believes in clearly warning of all extreme weather and explaining what the impact will be on people.
Heat-related deaths are one of the deadliest extreme weather health outcomes in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which notes that many heat-related deaths and illnesses are preventable. We agree.
AccuWeather’s core mission is to save lives, protect property and help people and businesses prosper, a directive we take to heart 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That’s one of the reasons why we developed the AccuWeather RealFeel Temperature and the guide that explains specifically what each number means, which can be found on our website. It’s also why AccuWeather meteorologists carefully consider the words we use in our forecasts so our users understand the risk of extreme weather to themselves and their families.
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