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‘Experts say’ name heatwaves like hurricanes – Seek shelter, a ‘Category 2’ heatwave is heading your way

Want to save lives? Name heat waves like hurricanes, experts say.

By Shannon Osaka

Excerpts: Now, as triple-digit heat waves set records around the country and around the world, a group of health experts, climate scientists, and policymakers are trying to give them names and rankings, just like hurricanes. In doing so, they hope to remind the public that extreme temperatures aren’t just an excuse to go to the beach — they can also be fatal.

The World Health Organization estimates that between 1998 and 2017, more than 166,000 people died due to exposure to extreme heat. One catastrophic heat wave in Europe in 2003 killed tens of thousands in Italy and Spain. In the U.S. alone, over 600 people succumb to extreme heat every year, outstripping the deaths from hurricanes, floods, or tornadoes in most years. And with climate change, sweltering temperatures are becoming all the more common.

“It’s this pervasive, pernicious, climate-induced threat that is little known,” said Kathy Baughman-McLeod, director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center at the Atlantic Council. “We call it the ‘silent killer.’”

Baughman-McLeod is one of the leaders of the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, a brand-new initiative formed by city governments, non-governmental organizations, and scientists. By naming and providing severity rankings for predicted heat waves before they strike, the alliance hopes to spark public awareness and encourage local cities and states to take preventative measures — setting up air-conditioned cooling centers, for example, and sending search-and-rescue teams to check on elderly and vulnerable populations.

Bob Ward, the policy director of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics, has been arguing for naming heat waves in the United Kingdom since last year. He thinks that it might push the U.K. government to upgrade buildings to be more resilient to heat and encourage individuals to check in on friends and family.

“People should be thinking about their elderly relatives and neighbors and looking out for them,” he said. “People tend to do that in cold weather, but they’re less likely to do that in hot weather — there’s this view that hot weather is somehow lovely for everyone.”

Simon Mason, a senior research scientist at the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University, said that while hurricanes can be easily categorized according to their wind speeds, extreme heat is more complicated. For example, he explained, temperatures in the triple-digits may be tolerable in Arizona, where humidity is low, while 90-degree temperatures on the East Coast with high humidity could be deadly.

Heat wave severity can also vary depending on what a community is used to experiencing. “You’ve got people in San Francisco, and at 90 degrees they’re passing out,” said Baughman-McLeod, alluding to the city’s notoriously cool and foggy weather. “But for people in Bakersfield” — a city north of Los Angeles — “90 feels like 75.”

The most important thing, according to Mason, is designing policies around the names and categories of heat waves — telling the public and cities how to react to a “Category 2” heat wave, for example. “Unless we design management and strategies around this naming convention, we’ll be missing the main point of doing this,” he said.