How do we manage a hotter reality and deadly heatwaves?
By Kristie L. Ebi, Howard Frumkin, and Jeremy Hess
The heatwave that struck the Pacific Northwest and Canada at the end of June 2021 brought temperatures never experienced in the region, breaking records by up to 11 degrees Fahrenheit. The heatwave, virtually impossible without human-caused climate change, is part of a pattern of more frequent, intense and long-lasting heatwaves that comes with our changing climate.
While the event was shocking, in many ways it should not have been a surprise. The heatwave was typical of responses and impacts to heatwaves observed in other well-resourced countries — but still poorly prepared for our new reality. Forecasts days before the event warned of record-shattering temperatures. City departments and outreach organizations began ad hoc discussions of what could be done in regions that have no heat action plans and low air conditioning prevalence.
These plans need to be co-designed and co-implemented involving not just health departments and meteorological services, but also emergency managers, fire and emergency medical services, utilities, social services, schools and universities, hospitals, and agencies and organizations working with marginalized communities, elderly care, and the unhoused. Systems will vary from location to location. State and national agencies can facilitate coordination and help ensure consistency of information provided. Plans need to be developed in advance and tested through drills and table-top stress tests. After heat events, comprehensive evaluation should be pursued.
It’s not just the heat: vulnerability is increasing. Around the world, more people are living in cities (a process partly driven by rural-to-urban migration when climate change ravages agriculture) — and cities are especially susceptible to extreme heat.