Heat-related fatalities projected to significantly increase with climate change

Weather

FILE – In this file photo dated Saturday, Dec. 12, 2015, the sun sets behind smoke emitting from a coal powered power plant in the Bosnian town of Tuzla, 120 kms north of Sarajevo, Bosnia. In a report released Tuesday Junw 25, 2019, environment groups have called for urgent measures to combat air pollution in the central Bosnian town of Tuzla saying dust concentration far exceeds legal limits and causes premature deaths. (AP Photo/Amel Emric, FILE)

A new study by Duke University show a substantial increase in heat-related fatalities in Texas by the year 2100 given the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions. These heat-trapping gases are contributing to the rise in global temperatures, a shifting climate and, as a result, more extreme heat events.

Heat is the #1 weather killer

On average, heat is the deadliest weather hazard here in the U.S., killing an estimated 12,000 people every year. That’s more than hurricanes and tornadoes combined.

Weather Fatalities (2018) via National Weather Service

As noted in the study, hospitals and health care providers do not always report heat-related illnesses or heat as an underlying cause of a death, making it hard to measure the actual impact of extreme heat on health.

Effects of climate change

With increased emissions of greenhouse gases (via industry, transportation, electricity, etc.) more heat is being trapped in the atmosphere. Think of greenhouse gases as a blanket around Earth — increase the concentration of those gases (thicker blanket), more heat gets trapped and the Earth warms. The temperature of our Earth is in fact rising. Since 1880, the global average surface temperature has risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit – a major feat considering how much heat the ocean can absorb and how much is reflected back into space.

According to the study performed by Duke University, heat-related deaths are projected to increase by 9,300 by the year 2100 if no cut in current greenhouse emissions is made. This surpasses initial projections made by the National Climate Assessment in 2018 by a factor of 10. That number drops to 3,900 fatalities by 2100 only if the warming is limited to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (+1.6 degrees).

Projected number of heat-related fatalities (per million people) by year 2100
Projected number of heat-related fatalities (per million people) in Texas by year 2100

Given Texas’ population of close to 30 million people and a rate of over 200 deaths per million, this would put our state on track to see over 5,800 people dying from heat-related causes annually, 80 years from now. (In 2019, just over 700 people died from heat-related causes in Texas.)

Complications with COVID-19

Research shows that over 80% of those dying from a heat-related cause are over the age of 60. Unfortunately, the same population more susceptible to heat-related illness/death is the same population more susceptible to COVID-19. Given the ongoing pandemic, the concern for the elderly rises as many are forgoing visits or wellness checks in an effort to social distance. In addition, the loss of jobs due to COVID-19 may put a strain on affording utilities like air conditioning.

Vulnerable populations to weather hazards | SOURCE: Environmental Protection Agency

How to help

The effects of living a cleaner, more sustainable life benefit not only the individual, but the overall community as a whole. Transportation makes up more than a quarter of all greenhouse gases… so even a simple walk to the park, rather than a drive, could be a small part of a grander solution in cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

And on the topic of staying safe in extreme heat, here at KXAN, we take pride in our partnership with Family Eldercare and their annual Summer Fan Drive. If you would like to help us in our mission to help keep those in need cool in the Central Texas heat, visit our website here.

More information on climate change affecting human health be found in the National Climate Assessment, found here.

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