Heat Waves and Extreme Heat

The Danger of Extreme Heat

Extreme heat events and heat waves can be very dangerous for human health. This is because our body temperature needs to stay at about 98.6°F, otherwise our organs and muscles may become stressed. When outside temperatures are low, our metabolism may speed up to increase our body temperature, and we can put on more clothing or turn up the room temperature. When the temperature is too high, our metabolism may slow down, we will sweat to radiate away heat (evaporating sweat takes heat with it), and we may turn on a fan or air-conditioning to cool off. However, if the temperature is too high and/or so humid that our sweat cannot easily evaporate, our bodies may begin to overheat. Single extremely hot days or several hot days in a row can lead to heat stress, heat exhaustion, or in the worst cases, death. (This is especially harsh when heat waves also include warm nights, so individuals don’t have any time for their bodies to cool off). In fact, the mass European heat wave of 2003 led to an estimated 70,000 excess deaths over a three-week span due to people’s difficulty keeping their body temperature cool enough to hold on.

Climate Change, Extreme Heat and People with Disabilities

Climate change is going to dramatically increase the frequency and intensity of extreme heat events in the coming years. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “most definitions [of an extreme heat event] refer to an extended period of time (several days or more) with unusually hot weather conditions that potentially can harm human health.” Under a low-emissions climate change scenario where temperatures increase 2°C (3.6°F) over the next several decades, the length of the longest extreme heat events may grow by a full week, and some parts of the United States (mainly the Southwest and Great Plains) will see over 60 more days per year above 100°F. A higher-emissions scenario of 3.5°C (6.3°F) would see the longest extreme heat events increase between 10-20 days, and most of the US would experience at least 30 extra 100°F-plus days per year, with a good portion seeing over 100 more days annually. (For more details, check out the CDC’s full publication)

a series of 3 graphs comparing a range of temperatures. Each has a current “bell curve” distribution of cold to hot temperatures, with a second bell curve showing different climate scenarios. The first, “increase in mean,” has the bell curve shifted slightly to the right and has “fewer cold extremes” and “more hot extremes.” The second, “increase in variance,” shows a shorter and wider new bell curve with “more cold extremes” and “more hot extremes.” A final graph, “increase in mean and variance,” shows a shorter and wider graph that is shifted to the right, has about the same cold extremes and dramatically more hot extremes.
These 3 graphs from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) show how climate change can influence the distribution of hot and cold days. Daily temperatures (for daily maximum and nightly minimum) for any given area exist on a “bell curve,” where a few days a year are extremely cold and a few are extremely hot, and there are more days closer to the average. Because climate change increases average temperatures, it will shift the curve to the right (figure a), leading to fewer cold extremes and more hot extremes. Climate change may also lead to more variable temperatures. Figure b shows that with more variability when averages stay the same, there is both more cold extremes and more hot extremes. When both averages and variance increase (figure c), as is likely to happen, cold extremes are likely to stay about the same but there will be many more hot extremes. | IPCC AR5
a set of graphs comparing the distribution of temperatures for the time periods of 1951-1980 and 1981-2010. The top graph shows daily minimum temperatures and their probability, while the bottom graph shows daily maximum temperatures. In both graphs, the 1951-1980 timeframe was a relatively even bell curve centered at 0°C and going from -15°C to 15°C. The 1981-2010 timeframe is shorter and wider and shifted to the right, with fewer extremely cold events and more extremely hot events.
This set of graphs from the IPCC compares the distribution of temperatures for the time periods of 1951-1980 and 1981-2010. The top graph shows daily minimum temperatures and their probability, while the bottom graph shows daily maximum temperatures. In both graphs, the 1951-1980 timeframe was a relatively even bell curve centered at 0°C and going from -15°C to 15°C. The 1981-2010 timeframe is shorter and wider and shifted to the right, with fewer extremely cold events (-5°C or less) and more extremely hot events (5°C or more). Average nighttime minimums also increased more than average daily maximums. This matches with the “increase in mean and variance” scenarios in the first set of IPCC graphs. | IPCC AR5

People with disabilities are especially vulnerable to extreme heat events for many reasons. Assorted disabilities often make it difficult to regulate body temperature: for example, people with high-level spinal cord injuries have a lower ability to sweat to cool their body temperature; meanwhile, individuals with chronic health conditions may have difficulty with any physiological stress, which certainly includes extreme heat. Other social factors also make an impact. People with disabilities experience disproportionate poverty levels and live in lower-quality housing on average, compared to those without disabilities. This often means they have less access to air-conditioning at home, or may have less money to pay air-conditioning bills if they do have A/C. Some cooling shelters may not be easy to get to for people relying on public transit or who are isolated at home – and those cooling shelters may be inaccessible and/or not have necessary medical or other disability supports as well. The combination of physical and social factors means that people with disabilities are, on average, more vulnerable to heat stress, heat exhaustion or death during extreme heat events.

Extreme Heat and Inclusive Climate Resilience

Comprehensive climate resilience plans should address extreme heat through public education, city and regional planning, smart housing development, and providing access to air-conditioned cooling centers. Because of the unique experience of people with disabilities, resilience initiatives should address their needs during hot days and heat waves, from living conditions to immediate responses. Examples include:

  • Pursue educational outreach about best practices during heat waves (i.e. keeping hydrated, being in the shade or finding air-conditioning, and limiting exercise), including in accessible formats such as braille and screen-reader-compliant digital documents.
  • Provide funding to support people with disabilities to install air-conditioning and pay electric bills during especially hot stretches of time. Government can especially support retrofits of subsidized and public housing for improved insulation and air conditioning.
  • Guarantee that newer housing with quality insulation and/or air-conditioning is fully accessible. For example, all new apartment and condo buildings should ideally have automatic door openers at the ground level and a designated number of units with wheelchair-accessible, roll-in showers. New buildings may also set aside some units for low-income residents.
  • Take active efforts to inform the disability community about upcoming extreme heat events through social networks, government agencies and community organizations. Provide recommendations for maintaining health and information about cooling shelters; ensure that all announcements are available in accessible formats.
  • Ensure that there are sufficient accessible cooling shelters or public buildings with air-conditioning (i.e. libraries and community centers), including with disability-related supports and staff trained in disability etiquette. Agencies or organizations can also facilitate travel to shelters as needed, for example through paratransit or even volunteer networks.
  • The front of St. John's community center in Portland, Oregon. This building has a ramp with handrails and green plants out front.
    Public “cooling shelters,” such as libraries and community centers, should be fully accessible and easy for people with disabilities to reach by car, public transit or paratransit. | Wikipedia (Author: Another Believer)

    For a more in-depth overview of how climate change will lead to more heat waves and extreme heat events, and what that means for people with disabilities, please visit the PDF archives of the New Earth Disability blog’s two-part Heat Wave series!

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