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Climate Change Brings More Deadly Heat Waves

By Sarah Lovinger (The Huffington Post) - July 20, 2011

Chances are that if you are living in the United States right now, you are experiencing sweltering heat.

Blazing hot temperatures are blanketing much of the US. While July is always a warm month, the extent and duration of this year’s heat is unusual and deadly. News reports indicate that people are dying in this protracted heat wave. Climate change most likely has a hand in this long, hot and dangerous summer.

Here in Chicago, where the temperature may reach 100 degrees today, I am certainly focused on the heat. Like most of us caught up in the broiling temperatures blanketing our country, I am taking precautions. I am staying hydrated, working inside with the A/C going, avoiding any unnecessary trips outside, and making sure my family and my pets are safe.

But not everyone is so well protected during a heat wave. The July 1995 Chicago heat wave led to more than 500 excess deaths in one week. Many high-level research studies published following the heat wave determined that most of the Chicagoans who succumbed to the heat were vulnerable elderly residents of this city who lived in high-crime neighborhoods, and were afraid to open their windows. Elderly people who often have underlying health problems are always more vulnerable to dehydration, heat stroke and death. During the Chicago heat wave of 1995, the addition of social isolation proved deadly for many people.

Western Europe experienced a similar heat wave in 2003, though the three-week period of extreme heat that engulfed France, Spain, Italy, and Germany was far more deadly. With its extensive impact, this heat wave led to 70,000 excess deaths. Many of the people who died were also elderly and alone.

Public health and other government officials have learned valuable lessons from these heat waves. Chicago and other US cities have established cooling centers, safe places where people can spend time in air-conditioning communal spaces. Family members and neighbors are advised to check in on elderly and other vulnerable people during heat waves, and officials remind all of us to drink enough water, stay in cool areas, and avoid unnecessary time outside. Europeans have taken similar steps. These actions are essential, because all climate change models indicate that heat waves will continue to occur with greater frequency and intensity as our planet continues to warm.

Climate change will continue to bring more intense heat waves. As an individual, a family member, someone in a community, you should be prepared to take precautions and help others. Because climate change can be deadly.