Quantcast
Climate
Snow in Atlanta on Jan. 17, 2018. Lisa Panero / Flickr

Climate Change and Weather Extremes: Both Heat and Cold Can Kill

By Garth Heutel, David Molitor and Nolan Miller

Climate change is increasing the frequency and strength of some types of extreme weather in the U.S., particularly heat waves. Last summer the U.S. Southwest experienced life-threatening heat waves, which are especially dangerous for elderly people and other vulnerable populations.

More recently, record-setting cold temperatures engulfed much of the country during the first week of 2018. This arctic blast has been blamed for dozens of deaths. Some scientists believe that Arctic warming may be a factor in this type of persistent cold spell, although others question this connection.


In a recent working paper, we studied the effect of temperature extremes on elderly mortality, using comprehensive data from Medicare covering about 35 million beneficiaries. Analyzing daily patterns at the ZIP code level, we estimated how daily temperature changes affect elderly mortality as a way to predict how people may adapt to climate change.

Our key finding is that both heat waves and cold snaps increase mortality rates. For example, the mortality rate from a day with average temperatures between 90 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit is higher by about one death per 100,000 individuals than a day with an average temperature between 65 and 70 degrees. Deaths also increase, by about one-half per 100,000 individuals, on days when the average temperature is less than 20 degrees.

Several prior studies have found similar results. This means that communities need to plan for the higher risk of deaths from both hot and cold weather extremes.

Heutel et al, 2017, CC BY-ND

Shivering in Florida, Sweating in North Dakota

People and communities have many options for adapting to climate change. They can install air conditioning, or change the urban environment—for example, by planting trees to cool city streets. They may improve readiness at health care facilities, or modify public health strategies—for example, by raising public awareness of risks associated with extreme weather.
As regions adapt, one might suspect that hot places like Miami deal well with heat but struggle with cold, while cold places like Fargo, North Dakota, are ready for deep freezes but less prepared for heat waves. This is exactly the pattern we found when we separately analyzed the hottest, middle and coldest thirds of all U.S. ZIP codes.

In hot places like Miami, cold days have a very large impact on mortality, while the impact of hot days is smaller. In contrast, hot days in Fargo have a very large impact on mortality, but an additional cold day has little effect. In fact, the effect of the hottest days (90 degrees or higher) in the coldest places is about two to three times larger than the effect of the coldest days (less than 20 degrees) in the hottest places.

Heutel et al., 2017, CC BY-ND

Adaptation Predictions

Next we considered how people and communities may adapt as climate change intensifies. We used predictions of temperatures in 2080-2100 from a set of climate models called the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5, which uses 21 different climate models and assumes that global carbon emissions continue to rise through the end of the century.

Using these projections, we predicted how many extra deaths would be caused by temperature extremes across our hot, moderate and cold zones under three different assumptions.

  • First, we assumed that no future adaptation occurred and that temperature had the same effect on mortality in all regions of the country.
  • Second, we assumed that no future adaptation took place, but that temperature had a different effect on mortality for each ZIP code.
  • Lastly, we assumed that temperature effects on mortality varied and that communities took steps to adapt to climate change. We did not explicitly model specific adaptation strategies; instead, we used the current differences in temperature effects across regions to predict future responses to climate change. Roughly, if Chicago's future climate starts to resemble current conditions in Miami, then we expect temperature effects on mortality in Chicago to begin mirroring the effects we see now in Miami, as Chicago employs better strategies to cope with high temperature extremes.

Heutel et al., 2017, CC BY-ND

In our first scenario, with no adaptation and uniform temperature effects, we found that climate change would increase death rates in the hottest regions by about 2 percent, but would reduce death rates in the coldest regions by a tiny 0.02 percent. This outcome supports the logical expectation that global warming could be less harmful or even beneficial for cold places, since it will reduce the number of very cold days.

Recall that in reality, however, cold regions deal well with cold weather but are less able to deal with extreme heat. In our second scenario, with no adaptation and temperature effects varying by region, we found that warming would increase deaths everywhere. Cold places would experience fewer very cold days, but they would experience more very hot days, for which they are not adapted. Consequently, we estimated that deaths would rise by about 3.7 percent in the coldest regions.

On the other hand, very hot places would see smaller mortality increases in this scenario. Hot places are harmed less than cold places by additional hot days, and benefit more from experiencing fewer cold days than the national average would suggest. In the net, we estimate that deaths due to weather extremes would increase in the hottest places by only 0.97 percent.

Finally, in our third scenario, which allowed for future adaptation to global warming, we found that mortality rates from extreme temperatures decreased for the middle and hottest regions and for the U.S. overall. This result indicates that when people and communities are allowed to adapt fully to temperature increases, they will do so in ways that more than offset the negative effects of climate change.

Is Adaptation the Answer?

Taken at face value, these simulations suggest that we don't need to worry about harmful effects of climate change on elderly mortality, because we can adapt through steps such as installing air conditioning and setting up short-term emergency shelters such as warming centers. But this conclusion would be overly optimistic for several reasons.

First, our study ignores the costs of adapting. Steps such as weatherizing homes can be expensive for both individuals and governments. President Donald Trump's 2018 budget request proposed eliminating the Department of Energy's Weatherization Assistance Program, which helps increase the energy efficiency of low-income homes.

Second, our results do not consider other possible policy responses, such as action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or geoengineer the climate, which may be more effective than relying on adaptation alone.

Our results suggest that there is room for steps that could substantially reduce heat-related elderly mortality due to climate change. Whether to take those steps is a social and political decision. But Americans should consider the temperature extremes that our nation has experienced over the past year as they weigh these choices.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.

Show Comments ()

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Sponsored
Popular
Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon, seen here speaking to the press about the Flint water crisis in 2016, will be the highest ranking official to stand trial over the public health disaster. Brett Carlsen / Getty Images

Judge Orders Michigan Health Director to Face Trial Over Flint Water Crisis Deaths

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services Director Nick Lyon will be the highest ranking official to go to trial so far as a result of an investigation into the Flint water crisis, The Associated Press reported Monday.

Judge David Goggins ruled Monday there was probable cause for Lyon to stand trial for involuntary manslaughter in the deaths of Robert Skidmore and John Snyder that prosecutors say were due to a Legionnaires' disease outbreak that Lyon was aware of a year before he alerted Michigan's governor, Michigan Live reported. Lyons is also charged with misconduct in office.

Keep reading... Show less
Politics
Coal-fired power plant near Becker, Minnesota. Tony Webster / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

Trump's 'Dirty Power Plan' Could Cost More Than 1,000 Lives a Year

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) unveiled on Tuesday its long-anticipated replacement of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan. The new coal pollution rules will increase planet-warming carbon pollution and could cost more than a thousand American lives each year, according to the EPA's own estimates.

EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler released the "Affordable Clean Energy Rule" today under President Trump's directive. The new plan encourages efficiency improvements at existing coal plants to ensure they operate longer and allows states to weaken, or even eliminate, coal emissions standards. That's a clear difference from former President Obama's plan, which was aimed at phasing out coal and transitioning to cleaner power sources to avoid dangerous climate change.

Keep reading... Show less
Health
Two workers in protective gear scrape asbestos tile and mastic from a facility at Naval Base Point Loma in California. NAVFAC / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Why Asbestos Is Still a Major Public Health Threat in the U.S.

Reports surfaced this month that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had proposed a significant new use rule (SNUR) for asbestos in June, requiring anyone who wanted to start or resume importing or manufacturing the carcinogenic mineral to first receive EPA approval.

Keep reading... Show less
Animals
Rklfoto / Getty Images

Bipartisan Group of Lawmakers Wants to End EPA’s Cruel Animal Testing

By Justin Goodman and Nathan Herschler

A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress recently pressed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on its "questionable" and "dubious" animal tests. The lawmakers' demand for information on "horrific and inhumane" animal testing at the EPA comes on the heels of a recent Johns Hopkins University study that found that high-tech computer models are more effective than animal tests.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Climate
Wikimedia Commons

Strongest, Oldest Arctic Sea Ice Breaks Up for First Time on Record

The Arctic is warming at a rate twice as fast as the rest of the globe, and now the region's thickest and oldest sea ice—also known as "the last ice area"—is breaking up for the first time on record, the Guardian reported Tuesday.

The breakage has opened up waters north of Greenland that are normally frozen-solid even in the peak of summer.

Keep reading... Show less
Energy
Climate Justice Edmonton

These Giant Portraits Will Stand in the Path of Trans Mountain Pipeline

By Andrea Germanos

To put forth a "hopeful vision for the future" that includes bold climate action, a new installation project is to be erected along the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion route to harnesses art's ability to be a force for social change and highlight the fossil fuel project's increased threats to indigenous rights and a safe climate.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Popular
A worker inspects recycled plastic in a plastics factory. Getty Images

The Plastic Waste Crisis Is an Opportunity to Get Serious About Recycling

By Kate O'Neill

A global plastic waste crisis is building, with major implications for health and the environment. Under its so-called "National Sword" policy, China has sharply reduced imports of foreign scrap materials. As a result, piles of plastic waste are building up in ports and recycling facilities across the U.S.

Keep reading... Show less
Adventure
Aaron Teasdale

The One Thing Better Than Summer Skiing

By Aaron Teasdale

"There's snow up here, I promise," I assure my son Jonah, as we grunt up a south-facing mountainside in Glacier National Park in July. A mountain goat cocks its head as if to say, "What kind of crazy people hike up bare mountains in ski boots?" He's not the only one to wonder what in the name of Bode Miller we're doing up here with ski gear.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!