Heat Warning — Expect Extreme Temps To Be Local Story This Summer

May 31, 2023
An experimental heat risk forecast map from the National Weather Service showing an unusually hot period in western Washington state earlier in May. Image: NWSSeattle via Twitter.

TipSheet: Heat Warning — Expect Extreme Temps To Be Local Story This Summer

By Joseph A. Davis

Heat kills people, and when it strikes regions unaccustomed to extreme high temperatures — like the Pacific Northwest in recent weeks — they’re often less well-prepared than the usual hotspots for its ill effects.

This year, predictions are for a hotter North American summer, with climate change making things worse. And even the climate deniers will be fried by El Niño this summer.

Don’t forget that, globally, extreme heat seems to be making some places in the world unlivable. And it matters even when heat doesn’t kill people because it makes life hard and painful in other ways. And it is getting worse in a lot of places.

But for U.S. environmental journalists working closer to home, it will undoubtedly be a local and regional story in the coming months.


The backstory

Weather is always on the front page. But extreme heat became a different kind of news in 1995, when it killed over 500 people in Chicago.

Extreme heat has shown itself to be more harmful in places where people are not used to it. That has been the case, for example, in the Pacific Northwest, both in the United States and Canada.

A lot depends on whether people have air conditioning, urban shade, adequate water, heat emergency programs, etc. How prepared is your area for extreme heat?

Some places, like California’s Central Valley, have relied a lot on the evaporative cooling devices known as “desert coolers” — which work in hot and dry places, but not so much in hot and humid places. Is your area experiencing changes in summer humidity?

Heat illness is fairly well understood, and information on it abounds. It may begin when people get dehydrated, which reduces the ability to cool through perspiration. The next stage is known as heat exhaustion, which involves sweating, cramps, headache and nausea. Heat stroke, characterized by high body temperature and fast pulse, is often fatal.

It may be subjective, but many observers think urban unrest and violence go up during extreme heat events. The psychological stress of extreme heat is quite real.


Asking who is most vulnerable

Journalists should stay aware of who is most affected by extreme heat.

Conventional wisdom encourages many people to check in on their elderly neighbors in a heat wave. Not only are they more frail, but those on fixed incomes may lack functioning air conditioning or even electricity.

But that’s really just the beginning.

What about nursing homes and other residential facilities for aging or convalescing people? Do they have plans and facilities for heat emergencies? Does the staff know how to care for residents in extreme heat?

Homeless people, especially on the street, lack options for cooling as well. Is there any place they can go to survive the heat wave?

Prisons in some parts of the country have, out of neglect or cruelty, forced prisoners to endure heat without air conditioning as well. Journalists may owe prisoners more illumination of this misery.


Farm workers and others who work outdoors

(e.g., construction workers, roofers) also have

a special vulnerability to extreme heat.


Farm workers and others who work outdoors (e.g., construction workers, roofers) also have a special vulnerability to extreme heat — and too often have employers who will not accommodate them.

People who are dependent on medical devices may also be at risk if extreme heat causes electrical blackouts. Talk to people who rely on breathing machines, dialysis, etc.

Athletes are sometimes neglected during heat emergencies. Whether it’s track or football, practice and play in the hottest summer weather can be a risk for school athletes — possibly made worse by coaches who value toughness.

People with certain preexisting medical conditions are especially vulnerable as well. For example, people with various mental illnesses are sometimes unable to protect themselves. Think about other conditions, too: obesity, heart disease and alcoholism, for example.

Those who live in some urban neighborhoods may be more vulnerable for several reasons. Lack of trees may make areas hotter. Blacktop pavement absorbs heat and raises ambient temperatures.


Story ideas and questions to ask

  • Does your community have plans for heat emergencies?
  • Does your community have cooling centers and other facilities for heat extremes? Are they big enough and accessible?
  • Are conditions in your community going to amplify heat extremes (e.g., urban heat islands) or moderate them (e.g., trees)?
  • What sort of warnings will your community get from broadcast meteorologists, local National Weather Service offices, etc.?
  • What exacerbating factors could make heat emergencies worse in your area? Wildfires and smoke? Air pollution? Drought?
  • What does your city or county planning department think about extreme heat? Have they included in their plans any measures for mitigating it? Also, ask the elected officials who oversee those offices.


Reporting resources

  • Centers for Disease Control: The CDC treats extreme heat as the serious public health issue that it is.
  • Climate Prediction Center: This National Weather Service agency gives nationwide midrange outlooks for extreme heat.
  • U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit: A program of the U.S. Global Change Research Program, an interagency umbrella in the federal executive branch.
  • Local public health agencies: This may include county boards of health or health departments.
  • Local emergency agencies: These will vary by locality — fire departments, ambulance services, police and sheriffs, or other “public safety” agencies.

[Editor’s Note: For more on covering heat waves, see Toolboxes on resources for tying temperature shifts to climate change, for finding record temps and for tracking data on heat deaths. Also see our Backgrounder on extreme heat and human health, TipSheets on urban heat islands and heat-induced grid failures, and a feature on reporting on workers in a warming world. For more on climate change generally, be sure to visit our Climate Change Resource Guide and its collection of resources on human health, as well as our special “Covering Your Climate” report on the Pacific Northwest. And keep track of the latest heat wave-related headlines via EJToday.]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 22. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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