Surviving a Future of Extreme Heat
Unprecedented extreme-heat episodes like the heatwave in India and Pakistan this spring and the 2021 heat dome in the Pacific Northwest are a preview of what awaits us on a warming planet. Unless we improve our early-warning and response systems, the number of excess deaths each year will increase.
SEATTLE – Although nearly all heat-related deaths are preventable, heatwaves kill thousands of people worldwide every year. At this very moment, an extreme heatwave in India and Pakistan, affecting about one billion people, is “testing the limits of human survivability,” warns Chandni Singh, a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report. In April, the average maximum temperature for northwest and central India was the highest in 122 years.
This is not just a South Asian problem. In recent years, similarly extreme conditions occurred in the United States, Australia, Europe, Scandinavia, and Japan, resulting in thousands of hospitalizations and excess deaths. Extreme heat is also linked to increases in premature births, low birthweight babies, and stillbirths; reductions in worker productivity; higher rates of chronic kidney disease of unknown origin; and increases in suicide.
Extreme temperatures are thus an “all of society” problem. Such conditions not only harm human health; they also have detrimental effects on infrastructure, crop yields, and poultry mortality, threatening livelihoods and undermining food security. The 2021 heat dome in the Pacific Northwest and western Canada was a case in point.