Advocates want to name heatwaves like hurricanes to raise awareness of their dangers — and save lives
'We need more drama for heat waves and we think that a name is going to do that,' says Kathy Baughman-McLeod
With heat records broken across parts of the United States this summer, one advocacy group wants to see heat waves named in the same way tropical storms are, in hopes of creating greater awareness of their danger.
"We need more drama for heat waves and we think that a name is going to do that," said Kathy Baughman-McLeod, director of the Adrienne Arsht–Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center and a leader of Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, the group pushing for the approach.
"Naming tropical storms and hurricanes and cyclones has brought the awareness and the culture of prevention and preparation and resources to areas of the world that are plagued by hurricanes and cyclones."
Baughman-McLeod wants extreme heat treated as extreme weather events like those that "tear the roof off your house or blow down trees."
Over the Labour Day weekend, Los Angeles reached a record high of 49 C (121 F), while Phoenix and Las Vegas faced similar highs at 46 C.
The hot, dry weather has exacerbated already-devastating wildfires across the western U.S., including California.
But heat can present a more insidious threat, Baughman-McLeod said. "We call it the silent killer," she told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.
According to a recent study out of Duke University, heat-related illnesses are responsible for more than 12,000 premature deaths each year in the U.S.
The U.S. Centres for Disease Control, meanwhile, puts that number at approximately 600. Baughman-McLeod says the lower number is likely the result of underreporting given many health record-keeping systems don't allow for heat-related mortality and morbidity in most places.
"Part of the challenge is that we don't keep records of heat-related illness and death, and oftentimes you would show up to the emergency room with a heat illness and it would be categorized as a kidney failure or a heart attack," she said.
Protecting the most vulnerable
Several cities — including Athens, Tel Aviv and Melbourne — and international climate organizations have signed on in support of the alliance's naming goal.
Those living in cities are more susceptible to the effects of extreme heat. Cities are built from materials that trap heat and lead to a "heat island effect" that can increase temperatures by up to 8 C, sayid Baughman-McLeod.
She believes that naming heat waves could help create measures that protect those most vulnerable to the heat, including those living in cities without access to air conditioning or other ways to cool down.
"Farm workers and delivery workers and construction workers ... wouldn't be expected to work during a named heat wave where they are," she said as an example.
With a name, she argued, news and social media could more easily elevate awareness of a heat wave.
But not everyone agrees on what is considered extreme heat, a challenge Baughman-McLeod is aware of.
She says that for this to work, an international framework must be created. From there, regions will be able to adapt what is considered extreme to their own climate.
"It will be about local conditions and the people who live in those areas there, what they're used to," she said.
When the U.S.-based Weather Channel began naming winter storms, there was disagreement among meteorologists and scientists. While Baughman-McLeod acknowledges that it has presented some challenges, she believes her group is working to develop the best framework.
"We are in discussions with those groups of scientists and researchers, applied scientists, climatologists, heat-health scientists, social scientists," she told Day 6.
"We will 100 per cent depend on science- and data-informed strategy to get to heat wave naming."
Written by Jason Vermes with files from The Associated Press. Produced by Annie Bender.