Jul 23, 2016

Will heat waves cause more deaths as the climate warms?

Central US
by
Elizabeth Shockman
,
Public Radio International
Palm Springs resident Benito Almojuela takes a selfie near a thermometer sign which reads 125 degrees in Palm Springs, California, June 20, 2016. Photo: Sam Mircovich / Reuters
Palm Springs resident Benito Almojuela takes a selfie near a thermometer sign which reads 125 degrees in Palm Springs, California, June 20, 2016. Photo: Sam Mircovich / Reuters

Considering that 2016 is predicted to be the hottest year on record worldwide, and that last month was declared the hottest June on record in the United States, how could climate change influence the number of heat-related deaths we see?

“It is difficult to predict,” says epidemiologist Elisaveta Petkova. “If we see an unprecedented heat wave, extremely high temperatures, longer duration, we may see a substantial number of people dying.”

...

Petkova, who is project director at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness of Columbia University in New York, wanted to find out more about the potential for heat-related public health problems in the future. So she, together with experts on climate science, demography and statistics, put together a study to try and predict different scenarios for future heat waves. 

According to their most extreme scenarios, some 3,000 people could die each year from heat waves. 

“We have projections about population change, how many people would live in the city. We have projections about the different climate scenarios that were used — a higher and a lower greenhouse gas emission scenario, various climate models, and also different adaptation pathways,” Petkova says.

“This specific estimate [of 3,000 people dying annually] is a combination of being exposed to the higher greenhouse gas emission scenario, having a higher population in the city, not reaching a higher level of adaptation in the future ... it’s just a combination of different factors.” 

Many people don’t think of heat as a health threat, but Petkova says over-exposure can be deadly