Study finds areas to endure ‘off-the-charts’ temp extremes and more

The below Jul. 16, 2019 press release from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Increases in potentially lethal heat driven by climate change will affect every state in the contiguous U.S. in the decades ahead, according to a new report and accompanying peer-reviewed study in Environmental Research Communications, both by the Union of Concerned Scientists, released today. Few places would be unaffected by extreme heat conditions by midcentury and only a few mountainous regions would remain extreme heat refuges by the century’s end.

Without global action to reduce heat-trapping emissions, the number of days per year when the heat index—or “feels like” temperature—exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit would more than double from historical levels to an average of 36 across the country by midcentury and increase four-fold to an average of 54 by late century. The average number of days per year nationwide with a heat index above 105 degrees Fahrenheit would more than quadruple to 24 by midcentury and increase eight-fold to 40 by late century.

The analysis, titled “Killer Heat in the United States: Climate Choices and the Future of Dangerously Hot Days” shows a hotter future that’s hard to imagine today. Nearly everywhere, people will experience more days of dangerous heat even in the next few decades. By the end of the century, with no action to reduce global emissions, parts of Florida and Texas would experience the equivalent of at least five months per year on average when the “feels like” temperature exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with most of these days even surpassing 105 degrees. On some days, conditions would be so extreme that they exceed the upper limit of the National Weather Service heat-index scale and a heat index would be incalculable. Such “off-the-charts” conditions could pose unprecedented health risks.

The analysis calculated the frequency of days with heat index thresholds above 90 degrees Fahrenheit—the point at which outdoor workers generally become susceptible to heat-related illness—as well as above 100 and 105 degrees Fahrenheit, when the National Weather Service (NWS) generally recommends issuing heat advisories and excessive heat warnings, respectively. The number of high heat-index days was calculated by averaging projections from 18 high-resolution climate models between April and October. The report looked at these conditions for three possible futures. The “no action scenario” assumes carbon emissions continue to rise and the global average temperature increases nearly 4.3 degrees Celsius (about 8 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels by century’s end. The “slow action scenario” assumes carbon emissions start declining at midcentury and the global average temperature rises 2.4 degrees Celsius (4.3 degrees Fahrenheit) by century’s end. In the “rapid action scenario,” global average warming is limited to 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit)—in line with the Paris Agreement. The analysis also examined the number of people in each state that would be exposed to a heat index above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, 100 degrees Fahrenheit, 105 degrees Fahrenheit, or off-the-charts conditions for an average equivalent of at least one week, one month, or two months per year. All population data presented here, including for future projections, is based on the most recent U.S. Census conducted in 2010 and does not account for population growth or changes in distribution.

The U.S. Northern Great Plains region, as defined by the latest U.S. National Climate Assessment, would see an average of 24 days per year with a heat index above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, 14 days per year with a heat index above 105 degrees Fahrenheit and three “off-the-charts” days per year by the end of the century if no action is taken to reduce global warming emissions, with Nebraska and South Dakota seeing the largest rise in extreme heat.

The report clearly shows how actions taken, or not taken, within the next few years to reduce emissions will help determine how hot and humid our future becomes. If the goal of the Paris Agreement is met and future global average warming is limited to 2 degrees Celsius, by late century the United States would see half the number of days per year, on average, with a heat index above 105 degrees Fahrenheit, and almost 115 million fewer people would experience the equivalent of a week or more of “off-the-charts” heat days. The longer the U.S. and other countries wait to drastically reduce emissions, the less feasible it will be to realize the “rapid action scenario” analyzed.

Governors and state legislators have begun moving toward 100 percent clean energy and Congress is considering a range of energy and climate policies—including renewable energy standards, climate resilient infrastructure and innovation incentives, which may see bipartisan support—that could help keep the worst at bay. Economists have also advised putting a price on carbon emissions to properly account for damages from the fossil-fuel-based economy and signal intentions to protect the environment.

In addition, the report includes a range of preparedness recommendations for governments, including: investing in heat-resilient infrastructure; creating heat adaptation and emergency response plans; expanding funding for programs to provide cooling assistance to low- and fixed-income households; directing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to set up protective occupational standards for workers during extreme heat; requiring utilities to keep power on for residents during extreme heat events; and investing in research, data tools and public communication to better predict extreme heat and keep people safe.

To view the report PDF, click here.

Image above: Philkon Phil Konstantin

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