Are we prepared for another heat wave?
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Summer 2022 is in full swing, which means heat waves and record-breaking temperatures are on the horizon for many parts of the country. Data from the EPA has shown that the average number of heat waves has increased every decade since the 1960s, as well as the average heatwave intensity and length. Just last month, extreme temperatures in New Mexico fueled multiple wildfires across the state. No matter where you live, it’s important to be aware of heat waves during the summer months and the danger they pose.
Summer 2022 heat waves
Before summer 2022 officially arrived, the U.S. was already experiencing higher than average temperatures. According to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), May 2022 was the ninth-warmest May in more than 140 years. Texas, specifically, experienced its second-warmest May on record.
In the first month of the summer season, many states have already experienced extreme heat waves. In June 2022, more than 50 million Americans were impacted by record-breaking heat in places like Arizona, Nevada, Colorado, Missouri, Kansas, Louisiana and Mississippi. During this time, more than 25 U.S. cities broke or tied heat index records.
However, this record-breaking heat is to be expected. Before the summer started, experts predicted that the U.S. would see above normal temperatures and below normal precipitation amounts across much of the country. The areas that could see the hottest temperatures in 2022 are New England and down into New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland, as well as in western and southwestern states, like Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.
Excessive heat warning
When extremely hot temperatures are expected within 12 hours, the National Weather Service (NWS) will issue an excessive heat warning for the area to be impacted. An excessive heat warning means that the maximum heat index temperature is predicted to be 105 degrees or higher for at least two consecutive days, and the temperature at night will not drop below 75 degrees.
However, the criteria for excessive heat warnings is not set in stone. Local NWS offices often work with other local weather experts to determine when an excessive heat warning is necessary. For example, if a heat wave is expected in a state that doesn’t typically experience high temperatures, such as North Dakota, Minnesota or Maine, an excessive heat warning could be issued when the temperature is expected to reach 95 degrees, rather than 105 degrees.
Excessive heat warnings are the most serious type of heat warning the NWS provides. While heat watches and heat advisories indicate potentially high temperatures, an excessive heat warning signifies that there could be a risk to life without taking the proper precautions.
In addition to high temperatures, excessive heat warnings can also signal the potential for wildfires. The NWS has already issued fire weather watches for New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and Utah for summer 2022. These states could be the most likely to see more record-breaking temperatures that may lead to devastating fires.
Impacts of extreme heat
Each year, roughly 67,500 emergency room visits are related to heat exposure. While most people know that extreme heat can negatively impact your health, it has several significant adverse impacts, some of which can have severe consequences on a large scale.
Severe body temperature increases cause heat stroke during heat waves. The immunocompromised are the most susceptible to heat stroke, but even young, fit people performing strenuous activities in hot temperatures can succumb. People suffering from heatstroke can become delirious, suffer from seizures, become combative and slip into a coma.
Symptoms of heat stroke can include:
- High body temperature (104F or higher)
- Altered mental state or behavior
- Alterations in sweating (depending on whether the heat stroke is brought on solely by hot temps or by strenuous exercise)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Flushed skin
- Rapid breathing
- Racing heart rate
Data shows that heat stroke can be fatal, with a death rate as high as 33%, even when treated. In addition, as many as 17% of heat stroke survivors suffer permanent damage.
Hot car deaths
When temperatures rise, sitting in a hot car could be deadly. Animals and children left in vehicles are at a higher risk of death during the hottest months of the year. In 2018 and 2019, 53 children died of vehicular heat stroke, a record number of fatalities. More than half of all hot car deaths are among children under two years old. However, it’s not just children and animals that are susceptible to vehicular heat stroke. Hot car safety statistics show the second leading cause of death in children under 15 is heat stroke from being in a hot car. Of those deaths, 25% were deemed child error from accessing the car, not from being left behind. Elderly people can also be at risk of being left in hot vehicles.
Extreme heat can increase the chance of wildfires, especially in areas with drought conditions. As of early July 2022, there had already been 34,478 fires in the U.S., which had burned a total of almost 4.6 million acres, an area larger than the state of Hawaii. The 2022 fire season has already progressed above the 10-year average of 27,346 fires and the average acreage of 2 million acres burned. The states that have seen the most destructive fires so far in 2022 are Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico and Texas.
Vehicles can break down more in hot temperatures, especially if the car has not been kept up on routine maintenance. The engine can overheat quickly if fluids get low. Battery wear and failure can be accelerated because of the outside temperatures and the demand placed on the air conditioning inside the car. And the tires may lose air pressure, which could cause a blowout on hot pavement. To keep your car running smoothly during the summer, it’s important to get an oil change every 5,000 to 10,000 miles, or more frequently if you are driving often.
Preparing for future heat waves
While it seems that extreme heat waves are here to stay, there are some things that you can do to be better prepared if there is an excessive heat warning in your area, including:
- With vehicle breakdowns a real possibility, make sure you have roadside assistance to prevent you from overheating in this situation. Most auto insurers offer a roadside assistance plan, which may come with an additional cost.
- Keep up with roof maintenance. Extreme temperatures could cause damage to roof materials, leading to leaks down the road. Check your homeowners insurance policy to see whether your provider covers roof damage due to extreme heat.
- Use blackout curtains or other materials on your windows and doors to block the sun from entering your home to keep your family cool and your energy costs down.
- Check for leaks around your doors and windows to keep the cool air in and hot air out, especially around window AC units.
- Change the air filter regularly in both your car and home to keep your air conditioning running efficiently. If the AC goes out unexpectedly, keep the space as dark as possible, using curtains in your home or a windshield cover in your car. If possible, park your car in a garage or in the shade. Contact a professional to restore the AC in your car or home as soon as possible.
- Plan simple meals that do not require heating the house with the oven or stove. Serve cold foods like salads and precook chicken or fish during the cooler hours of the day to use with meals.
- Perform regular maintenance on your car, including topping off your fluids, putting air in the tires and recharging the AC.
- Plant trees to create green space and to keep your car, home and family shaded in future heat waves.
- Stock up on bottled water when there is not a heat wave to ensure that you have plenty of fluids at home or on the road.
Coping with extreme heat
When the worst happens and you find yourself in the grip of an extreme heat wave, these are some things you can do to keep yourself and your loved ones safe:
- Avoid bringing a pet or child if you plan to leave them in the car unattended.
- Have a plan for staying cool in case of power loss or an unplanned blackout.
- Before spending time outside, apply sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. It’s recommended to reapply sunscreen every two hours, especially if you are sweating. Look for sunscreens with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which are some of the most effective ingredients for sun protection.
- Drink plenty of water during hot days, especially if you are spending time outside. Reducing the amount of caffeine and alcohol you consume on hot days can also reduce your risk of dehydration.
- Take cool showers or baths.
- Know where cooling centers are located in your area in case you need relief from the heat away from home.
- Think about eating meals that can be served cold or at room temperature or don’t require long cook times. Using the stove or oven can heat up your kitchen quickly.
- Keep electronic devices charged and put fresh batteries in flashlights in case of a power outage.
- Limit the amount of time you spend outdoors on extremely hot days. If you are going to be outside, it’s best to do so during the coolest parts of the day, which are usually after 5 p.m. and before 9 a.m.
- Dress in light-colored clothing. Certain materials, like cotton, linen and merino wool, have been shown to help keep you cool. Sweat-wicking fabrics can also be a good choice on a hot day.
- Know the symptoms of heat-related illnesses to prevent heat stroke and pay attention to your family members and pets. Get immediate medical attention if you suspect heat stroke.
- Avoid strenuous activities, especially outside.
- Check on your neighbors, friends and family members.
- Install a window air conditioner or central system if you do not already have one. Fans will not prevent heat-related illness in excessive temperatures.
- If extreme heat is in the forecast, plan for it. Go grocery shopping, run errands and fill prescriptions so you will not have to venture outside.
It’s not a matter of if, but when, the next heat wave will strike the U.S., but making some simple preparations now—and simply having a plan in place—could help you and your family stay healthy and safe.