It’s Getting Hotter: Preparedness Essential

Jun 7, 2013, 1:36 PM

A new study from Columbia University finds that deaths linked to a warming climate may rise by as much as 20 percent by the 2020s. The study was published in Nature Climate Change, by an interdisciplinary team at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and the Mailman School of Public Health.

“This serves as a reminder that heat events are one of the greatest hazards faced by urban populations around the globe,” said coauthor Radley Horton, PhD, a climate scientist at the Center for Climate Systems Research. In fact, although tornadoes are currently trending as the most common “weather word” right now, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, extreme heat kills more Americans each year than tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding and earthquakes combined.

Cities could be hit harder than other areas, according to the new research that found that daily records from Central Park in Manhattan show that average monthly temperatures already increased by 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit from 1901 to 2000—substantially higher than the global and U.S. trends, according to the researchers, who say that cities tend to concentrate heat. Buildings and pavement soak it up during the day and give it off at night. Last year was the warmest year on record for New York City.

file CDC Extreme Heat Infographic

And while the East generally had a cool May this year, the Columbia University study projects that the largest percentage increase in deaths would be in May and September—perhaps because people won’t be paying attention to needed precautions against heat stroke and dehydration as they more commonly do in the key summer months of July and August. Precautions include planning days in the shade and air conditioning instead of being out in the sun, and drinking more water.

“I think this points to the need for cities to look for ways to make themselves and their people more resilient to heat,” said Patrick Kinney, ScD, professor of environmental health sciences and director of the Columbia Climate and Health Program at the Mailman School of Public Health, and an author of the recent paper.

Community resiliency, more commonly thought of as needed during hurricanes and tornadoes, could be an important factor in reducing deaths from extreme heat. Earlier this year The New Yorker reported on two neighborhoods in Chicago during a 1995 heat wave. People who lived in the community with stronger social networks had fewer deaths because neighbors checked in on one another. Since then, according to the article, Chicago city agencies have maintained a database of the phone numbers of old, chronically ill, and other vulnerable people and city workers call or visit to make sure they’re safe during dangerous situations such as extreme heat.

>>Bonus Links:

  • Read about third graders who won a White-House sponsored science fair for their invention, Cool Pads, which are applied to the body to cool down youth football players on hot days.
  • Read important information on extreme heat awareness, precautions and treatment at

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.