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Extreme heat continues to blanket much of Europe and North America, with some 55 million people in the US facing heat warnings or advisories as of early Friday.
“So far this week, 60 daily high temperature records have been linked/broken as dangerous heat enveloped much of the country,” according to the National Weather Service Prediction Center. tweeted Thursday. “More records are likely to be set in the coming week.”
So far this week 60 daily high temperature records have been linked/broken as dangerous heat enveloped much of the nation. Some notable records include all-time highs in Salt Lake City, UT and Abilene, TX. More records are likely to be set in the coming week. pic.twitter.com/uI1JeHIwcW
— NWS Weather Forecast Center (@NWSWPC) July 21, 2022
That seems to fit with the larger trends, as climate change is making heat waves (as well as droughts and floods) more frequent and intense. And many American adults report having personally felt the effects of extreme heat in recent years — from health problems to higher electricity bills.
It is not too late for nations and industries to take action to avert the climate crisis, as a UN report found earlier this year. In the meantime, on scorching summer days, it’s especially important for people to take these kinds of measures to keep a cool head, reduce health risks, and know what symptoms to watch out for.
NPRs morning edition and All together spoke with experts in various fields about what you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones, from furry friends to younger children.
Heat waves don’t make for great dog walking weather
You may not want to go outside when temperatures are approaching 100 degrees. Frankly, your dog may not want that either. But they still need to walk and take toilet breaks.
So what can dog and cat owners do to keep their pets safe during periods of extreme heat?
Everything taken into consideration Juana Summers posed that question to Sy Woon, the Florida representative for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.
Woon says it’s important to pick the right time of day to get out and about, and avoid doing so in the afternoons when the sun is at its highest and hottest point (the rays are usually strongest between 10am and 4pm).
She also recommends feeling the pavement with the back of your hand to see if it’s too hot for your dog’s paws to bear.
“We sometimes think they can walk over any surface and do well, but actually they can be quite sensitive,” she adds.
And what if Fido likes to take part in that classic, dog days-of-summer activity of laying in the sun?
Woon suggests bribing dogs into the house with treats during those especially hot times of the day, as they can be prone to sunburns and even skin cancer.
As for cats, Woon says the key is making sure they have options. That means making sure there are several shady areas for them to retreat to, as well as multiple available water sources, as it can evaporate at extreme temperatures.
And while panting is a common way for these animals to lose heat, Woon says you should pay attention if it starts to seem excessive.
“If you notice your dog is panting excessively, you really want to take that as a warning sign that they may be overheating,” she says. “Even things like being slightly disoriented or maybe their expression, their eyes are a little glassy, that could be signs that they’re just not compensating for the heat. And it’s always important to just encourage them to stay inside during those really warm, sunny periods.”
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Heat can have lasting health effects, but time outdoors is important too
Extreme heat can affect the human body in several ways, explains Dr. Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician and interim director of The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
It makes people sweat more, which can lead to dehydration. In addition, rising body temperatures can threaten the heart, lungs, brain, kidneys and other organs.
“And so what we see as a result of those things is that people with existing heart problems, lung problems, kidney problems, and even mental health problems are getting sicker,” Bernstein says. “And even for people who are generally in good health, the heat can be really dangerous if we’re not paying attention.”
Certain groups are disproportionately affected by extreme heat, including infants and children, adults over 65, outdoor workers, people with chronic conditions, athletes and people on low incomes.
Communities of color, especially black and Hispanic Americans, tend to live in parts of cities that are warmer than surrounding areas because they lack green space, Bernstein says, calling that a “direct result” of the realignment policies of the United States. government dating back nearly a century.
“It’s no longer legal to do that, of course, but the consequences in terms of heat exposure are real,” he adds.
Bernstein also notes that all of these problems are exacerbated by the higher temperatures we see as the climate warms. A child born in the US today is likely to experience four or five times as many dangerous heat waves as someone born in 1960, he says.
Bernstein says parents should do their best to keep their kids safe without keeping them indoors all summer.
“I think we need to strike a balance between the huge benefits, especially in the summer, of kids getting outside, exercising, doing all those things, and being careful about temperatures that…as this current moment makes abundantly clear, a lot higher than they have been,” he says.
Bernstein adds that action to reduce the greenhouse gases that warm the climate is necessary to protect children’s health. And he is optimistic about possible solutions.
“Because the warming has been so bad because of the way we’ve built our communities, that means we can turn it around,” he says. “That means we can make great strides in preventing harm and advancing health equity if we think strategically about transforming urban environments.”
Cities can (and should) adapt to climate change
There are also steps builders and architects can take to help cities adapt to rising temperatures.
Brigitte Clements of the Architects Climate Action Network says the approach has two parts: reducing thermal absorption (or the rate at which something heats up) and integrating natural cooling strategies.
She points to natural processes that have been in use for centuries, such as providing cross ventilation to allow air to flow through buildings or using only reflective or white roofs (because black absorbs more heat). For example, she says many buildings in Greece have white roofs and parts of Australia have completely banned dark roofs.
But the biggest intervention that Clements advocates is also one of the simplest: evaporative cooling, aka plants.
Plants evaporate, releasing water vapor into the air through their leaves, and that process has a cooling effect. So more greenery in cities and on buildings – such as in the form of green roofs – can significantly lower the temperature.
“Green roofs have the advantage in summer of lowering the indoor temperature to 5 degrees Celsius,” she says.
Clements points to Basel, Switzerland, where green roofs make up about 40% of the roof area as a result of a government initiative started about two decades ago.
“They actually asked the residents: what would you think if we had a 5% tax on our energy bill to subsidize green roofs in Basel for all new construction and renovation of flat roofs?” she explains.
So what’s stopping governments in places like the UK – which saw the hottest day on record this week, with dozens of fires and major infrastructure disruptions – from taking similar measures?
Clements says a cultural transformation and mindset shift is needed, and this week’s heat event could lead people to take the threat more seriously.
“But in the end, we can’t rely on people’s good will,” she says. “We need the government with strong leadership and the creation of policies and legislation to help us do this and with very, very clear and quantifiable goals and targets.”