- Two-thirds of the United States is bracing for a massive heat wave, which could produce temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
- That heat isn’t just uncomfortable. The warming has serious effects on people’s physical health, mental well-being, and cognitive ability.
- In the US, heat waves are the deadliest form of extreme weather.
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Tens of millions of Americans are bracing for brutal temperatures this weekend as a massive heat wave sweeps two-thirds of the US. On the East Coast, temperatures are expected to top 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and in the Midwest, temperatures could climb past 110 degrees.
That heat is more than just uncomfortable. It could also prove to be deadly.
When our bodies are exposed to extreme temperatures, we become more susceptible to exhaustion and heat stroke. There are also long-term consequences that can lead to disease.
Here’s what science tells us about how extreme heat affects the body and brain.
Heat causes heat exhaustion, which can be dangerous.
Stepping outside on a July or August day can feel like a physical blow. The longer you spend in the heat, the more serious the effects on your body can be.
Increased body temperature can cause heavy sweating, clammy skin, dehydration, tiredness, headache, dizziness, nausea, cramps, and a quick, weak pulse.
Someone in this state should move to cool place, sip water, and take a cool bath or put cool wet cloths on their body. If these symptoms last longer than an hour, worsen, or if a person is vomiting, then they need medical help, according to the CDC.
Once a person gets hot enough, they can develop heat stroke.
Once body temperature rises to 103 Fahrenheit or higher, a person starts to suffer from heat stroke, which can be a fatal medical emergency.
Symptoms of this include many of the signs of heat exhaustion, though a person with heat stroke may have a fast, strong pulse; feel confusion; and may be losing consciousness. They also may stop sweating.
People suffering from heat stroke need to be cooled immediately. Don’t give them anything to drink. Move them to a cool place, put cool cloths on them or put them in a cool bath, and call 911.
Extreme heat makes us dumber.
If you’ve ever felt like the heat puts your brain into a fog – like the sensation of being in a steam room, where it’s hard to breathe, much less think clearly – you’re not alone.
A number of studies show that as temperatures climb, humans perform more slowly and more inaccurately on cognitive tests. This phenomenon affects everyone from students taking standardised tests to office workers trying to get through the day.
Heat causes air pollution and air quality to get worse, which makes it harder to breathe and leads to disease.
Ever noticed how you see so many air quality alert days in the summer?
On hot days, heat from the sun causes pollutants to react with atmospheric gases to form ozone. The hotter it is, the more ozone pollution is produced. Plus, still air on hot days causes smog to stick around.
One 2008 study found that for every degree Celsius the temperature rises, ozone pollution can be expected to kill an additional 22,000 people around the world via respiratory illness, asthma, and emphysema.
Non-ozone air pollution linked to warmer weather will also increase rates of lung cancer, allergies and asthma, and cardiovascular disease.
A 2017 study found that air pollution already kills 9 million people every year. As temperature increases, that death toll will rise.
Abnormally high temperatures can cause suicide rates to spike.
A 2018 study published in the journal Nature Climate Change reported that a 1-degree-Celsius rise in average monthly temperature was associated with an increase in the monthly suicide rate. In the US, that increase was about 0.7%, and in Mexico it was 2%.
By 2050, the study authors concluded, this will likely lead to 14,000 additional suicides in the US, though they say there could be as many as 26,050 more.
Hotter weather causes mental well-being to deteriorate.
Many of us might associate the transition from winter to summer with a positive mood, but it seems the heat can wear us down over time.
The authors of that same study on the link between climate and suicide also analysed more than 600 million tweets, and found that people were more likely to express depressive feelings as temperatures rose.
Warmer weather makes allergies and asthma even worse.
When spring arrives every year, allergy sufferers feel it in their noses, throats, sinuses, eyes, and more. Spring pollen season now begins earlier in the year, and the growing season for allergenic pollen like ragweed has gotten longer.
More carbon dioxide in the air also increases pollen levels.
All of this leads to more sneezing and sniffling for for allergy sufferers – and these allergy symptoms can make dangerous asthma attacks more frequent.
Heat waves are the deadliest form of extreme weather, responsible for more deaths in the US every year than the combined effects of hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods.
A 2017 study published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that 30% of the world is already exposed to heat that’s intense enough to kill people for 20 or more days each year. That level of intensity is defined using a heat index that takes into account temperature and humidity. At above 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees C ), organs swell and cells start to break down.
In 2010, more than 10,000 people died in a Moscow heat wave. In 2003, some estimates say a European summer heat wave killed up to 70,000.
Unfortunately, that trend might continue.
As humans continue to pump greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, more of the heat that our world absorbs from the sun gets trapped, raising the world’s average temperature and triggering other changes.
The past five years have been the hottest five on record around the globe. By 2050, cities in the US and around the world are expected to see a skyrocketing number of days with temperatures topping 100 degrees, and temperatures are projected to climb even higher by 2100.
New York City, which has an annual average of zero days above 100 degrees Fahrenheit now, is expected to see 11 days like that per year by 2050 and 30 such days by 2100. Houston, which currently sees two days that top 100, is expected to get 30 such days by 2050 and 76 by 2100.
Kevin Loria wrote an earlier version of this story.
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