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July-August 2004

Coping with heat

Although this summer’s blockbuster hit, The Day After Tomorrow, features Ice Age weather descending on New York City, a less dramatic but more realistic scenario looms on the other end of the spectrum: heat waves.

Last year a heat wave in Europe killed nearly 15,000 people in France alone. Even though this summer hasn’t bought similar searing temperatures, it’s probably a safe bet that heat waves are a more serious threat in coming decades than instant icebergs.

Olga Wilhelmi

Olga Wilhelmi

According to Olga Wilhelmi (ESIG), the combination of increasing urbanization, growing numbers of vulnerable people, and evidence of global warming indicate a need to improve heat wave mitigation. “Heat wave hazards present a complex, interdisciplinary problem,” Olga says. “Even though heat waves are common climatic events affecting a large amounts of population, because of their slow onset and generally non-destructive nature they don’t get much media attention until we see enormous impacts such as those in Europe last summer.”

Olga specializes in studying societal vulnerability to natural hazards, with an emphasis on using GIS and remote sensing.  In August, she and two co-authors—EISG’s Bob Harriss and Kathleen Purvis of Claremont College—published a paper in Natural Hazards Review on how to apply geospatial information technologies to mitigate heat waves in urban areas. Urban areas are especially vulnerable to heat waves because of the urban “heat island” effect. Buildings, streets, and sidewalks absorb heat throughout the day but, unlike plants, don’t evaporate water and cool the air, so temperatures climb higher in cities than in surrounding rural areas.

One application of remote sensing described in Olga’s paper is thermal mapping, in which researchers use airborne thermal scanners to map the difference between daytime and nighttime surface temperatures in urban and rural areas. Researchers can also search for micro-heat islands within cities. As for GIS, researchers have recently begun applying this technology to human health, meteorology, and climatology. It’s particularly useful for integrating biophysical and socioeconomic data to identify hot spots in cities and pockets of populations at risk.Olga stresses that the point of these technologies is to help prepare cities and people for heat wave hazards. “There are many things that can be done to lessen the impacts of heat waves,” she says.  “People just need to be prepared.”

Elderly people living alone, people living in city centers where the urban heat island effect is most pronounced, and those without resources for things like air conditioning or transportation to cooler places are most likely to suffer when the mercury rises, Olga says. A combination of public education, establishment of cooling centers and community networks, and changes in urban landscapes help prevent human morbidity and mortality from extreme heat. It’s also important for medical staff to know how to recognize signs of heat exposure.

Olga points out that northern cities, where people aren’t acclimated to extreme heat, are least able to handle heat waves.  And with climate change on the horizon, there could be more cities finding themselves ill-equipped to deal with rising temperatures, she says. •Nicole Gordon

heat graphic

Spatial distribution of heat related mortality from 1986 to 2000. The mortality statistics were obtained from the National Weather Service Office of Climate, Water and Weather Services (courtesy Olga Wilhelmi).


Also in this issue...

A pair of sixes: NCAR bolsters its scientific staff

Over the hill and picking up speed

No day at the beach: SOARS protégés tackle research projects

Child's play

Delphi Questions

New Leaders


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