Should We Name Heat Waves Like We Name Hurricanes to Save Lives?
By Jeff Berardelli
Note: This story was originally published on August 6, 2020
If asked to recall a hurricane, odds are you'd immediately invoke memorable names like Sandy, Katrina or Harvey. You'd probably even remember something specific about the impact of the storm. But if asked to recall a heat wave, a vague recollection that it was hot during your last summer vacation may be about as specific as you can get.
Although heat waves rarely get the attention that hurricanes do, they kill far more people per year in the U.S. — about three times as many, according to NOAA. In 1995 a scorching heat wave in Chicago left 739 people dead.
Heat waves are even more impactful overseas, partly because people there are less likely to have air conditioning. The European heat wave of 2003 is estimated to have caused an astounding 70,000 deaths. In 2010, 56,000 people died in a heat wave in Russia.
Perhaps if heat waves received as much public attention as hurricanes, lives could be saved? That's the idea behind a new initiative launched Wednesday that aims to tackle the notoriety issue by naming and ranking heat waves. The hope is that by raising awareness of the dangers, people will be more adequately prepared when heat waves strike.
The initiative is being led by the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center. They, along with 30 global partners — including the cities of Miami, Mexico City, and Athens, Greece — announced the formation of the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance.
"This extreme heat crisis can no longer be the 'silent killer' it is," said Kathy Baughman McLeod, director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center. "This growing risk — and related solutions — must be blasted from a megaphone to decision makers and to people everywhere."
A study released by Oxford University in July backs up the need to raise awareness about heat waves. The research shows that despite the fact that extreme heat events in sub-Saharan Africa are rapidly worsening because of climate change, there's been a lack of official record-keeping to document the impact in a region that is a "literal hotspot" for heat wave activity.
The analysis concludes that this failure is "putting the population at further risk," since "action plans and early warning systems are invaluable in mitigating the impacts of extreme temperatures."
While the United States has an elaborate system of warnings, from the National Weather Service to national and local media, including TV meteorologists, much of the developing world does not have that luxury. Research suggests that naming may help.
"The naming and ranking heat waves all over the world by the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance will, for the first time, convey the true nature of the threat heat poses, essential to protecting vulnerable people who are increasingly more susceptible to its harmful effects," said Rockefeller Foundation president Dr. Rajiv Shah in a press release.
The practice of naming major storms began years ago in order to help with quick identification, because names are presumed to be far easier to remember than numbers or technical terms. The World Meteorological Organization explains, "Appending names to storms makes it easier for the media to report on tropical cyclones, heightens interest in warnings and increases community preparedness."
One memorable recent heat wave — with an extremely memorable nickname — roasted Europe in 2017. That heat wave became widely known as Lucifer, and scientists say such extreme events have been made 10 times more likely due to climate change.
Dr. Ed Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, agrees that naming heat waves would help with preparedness.
"A heat wave is an abstraction. Abstract ideas are hard to understand and remember, while concrete ideas are easier to understand and remember. Naming something is a good way to make it more concrete," he said.
"Concrete ideas are also more actionable in that people can more easily figure what to do, or what not to do. Concrete ideas are also more likely to be shared from person to person, which is helpful from a communication and public safety perspective," adds Maibach.
This push to name and rank heat waves comes at a time when climate change is dramatically increasing the chances for extreme heat. A study published in July in Nature Communications shows that since 1950, heat waves globally are getting significantly more frequent, lasting longer and producing more cumulative heat — making populations more vulnerable to heat stress.
In 2016, famed climate scientist James Hansen from Columbia University published research showing that hotter summers could make parts of the Middle East and tropics "practically uninhabitable" by the end of the century. This May, a follow up study from Columbia concluded that potentially fatal combinations of humidity and heat are already beginning to emerge across the globe.
As the intensity of extreme heat accelerates, the number of deaths will rise dramatically. That's the conclusion of a major report just released by Climate Impact Lab on Monday. Their research shows that by the year 2100, the global annual mortality rate due to excess heat is expected to climb to 73 per 100,000 people — a mortality rate similar to what New York state suffered from COVID-19. With an expected global population of around 11 billion, that translates into 8 million heat-related deaths per year.
The report also concludes the poor will be disproportionately impacted by extreme heat and die at much higher rates, bolstering the argument for naming heat waves especially in developing nations.
But here in the U.S., many meteorologists are skeptical about naming heat waves. That's because defining heat waves is not easy — it entails factoring in many variables like intensity, longevity and the size of the area covered. Therefore, people may interpret the meaning differently. And as importantly, "heat wave" means different things to different people, depending on where they live.
In many parts of the U.S. the definition of a heat wave is three days or more in a row of 90+-degree heat. However, 100 degrees in Phoenix — which is an everyday summer occurrence — does not have nearly as big a physical impact as 100 degrees in Chicago, where people are not used to extreme heat. In addition, humidity, wind and sun exposure all play a big role in the impact, but those are not factored into the current definition of a heat wave.
The Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance plans to tackle this issue of differing definitions by ranking the severity of heat waves. But the concern among some meteorologists is that naming may lead to broad-brush assumptions when in reality there is so much local nuance. They feel there needs an updated, agreed-upon definition of what constitutes a heat wave.
Naming heatwaves is a good idea—making the abstract concrete, the invisible visible. Why should hurricanes and wild… https://t.co/hDWgYb79Ob— Ed Maibach (@Ed Maibach)1596623660.0
In its press release, the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance said it is in active conversations with NOAA, the World Meteorological Organization and other institutions to build "the international cooperation needed to make naming and ranking of heat waves standard practice."
Though the debate continues, not all weather professionals are skeptical about the initiative. Lonnie Quinn, the chief weathercaster at WCBS-TV in New York City, thinks it's a good idea. "I 100% believe that naming heat waves will give them more credibility. The public will jump on board and it will result in them being taken more seriously," he said.
One thing virtually everyone in the climate and weather community agrees on: climate change is making extreme heat a more serious threat to human health. Therefore, anything that can raise awareness is much needed.
"Heat waves are dangerous," said Maibach. "Making them more concrete is a useful way to help people understand the dangers, act on the dangers, and share information with other people about the dangers."
This story originally appeared in CBS News and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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1. Stay Informed<p>A first order of business in pet evacuation planning is to understand and be ready for the possible threats in your area. Visit <a href="https://www.ready.gov/be-informed" target="_blank">Ready.gov</a> to learn more about preparing for potential disasters such as floods, hurricanes, and wildfires. Then pay attention to related updates by tuning <a href="http://www.weather.gov/nwr/" target="_blank">NOAA Weather Radio</a> to your local emergency station or using the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/mobile-app" target="_blank">FEMA app</a> to get National Weather Service alerts.</p>
2. Ensure Your Pet is Easily Identifiable<p><span>Household pets, including indoor cats, should wear collars with ID tags that have your mobile phone number. </span><a href="https://www.avma.org/microchipping-animals-faq" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Microchipping</a><span> your pets will also improve your chances of reunion should you become separated. Be sure to add an emergency contact for friends or relatives outside your immediate area.</span></p><p>Additionally, use <a href="https://secure.aspca.org/take-action/order-your-pet-safety-pack" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">'animals inside' door/window stickers</a> to show rescue workers how many pets live there. (If you evacuate with your pets, quickly write "Evacuated" on the sticker so first responders don't waste time searching for them.)</p>
3. Make a Pet Evacuation Plan<p> "No family disaster plan is complete without including your pets and all of your animals," says veterinarian Heather Case in <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9NRJkFKAm4" target="_blank">a video</a> produced by the American Veterinary Medical Association.</p><p>It's important to determine where to take your pet in the event of an emergency.</p><p>Red Cross shelters and many other emergency shelters allow only service animals. Ask your vet, local animal shelters, and emergency management officials for information on local and regional animal sheltering options.</p><p>For those with access to the rare shelter that allows pets, CDC offers <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/healthypets/emergencies/pets-in-evacuation-centers.html" target="_blank">tips on what to expect</a> there, including potential health risks and hygiene best practices.</p><p>Beyond that, talk with family or friends outside the evacuation area about potentially hosting you and/or your pet if you're comfortable doing so. Search for pet-friendly hotel or boarding options along key evacuation routes.</p><p>If you have exotic pets or a mix of large and small animals, you may need to identify multiple locations to shelter them.</p><p>For other household pets like hamsters, snakes, and fish, the SPCA recommends that if they normally live in a cage, they should be transported in that cage. If the enclosure is too big to transport, however, transfer them to a smaller container temporarily. (More on that <a href="https://www.spcai.org/take-action/emergency-preparedness/evacuation-how-to-be-pet-prepared" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">here</a>.)</p><p>For any pet, a key step is to establish who in your household will be the point person for gathering up pets and bringing their supplies. Keep in mind that you may not be home when disaster strikes, so come up with a Plan B. For example, you might form a buddy system with neighbors with pets, or coordinate with a trusted pet sitter.</p>
4. Prepare a Pet Evacuation Kit<p>Like the emergency preparedness kit you'd prepare for humans, assemble basic survival items for your pets in a sturdy, easy-to-grab container. Items should include:</p><ul><li>Water, food, and medicine to last a week or two;</li><li>Water, food bowls, and a can opener if packing wet food;</li><li>Litter supplies for cats (a shoebox lined with a plastic bag and litter may work);</li><li>Leashes, harnesses, or vehicle restraints if applicable;</li><li>A <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/pet-first-aid-supplies-checklist" target="_blank">pet first aid kit</a>;</li><li>A sturdy carrier or crate for each cat or dog. In addition to easing transport, these may serve as your pet's most familiar or safe space in an unfamiliar environment;</li><li>A favorite toy and/or blanket;</li><li>If your pet is prone to anxiety or stress, the American Kennel Club suggests adding <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">stress-relieving items</a> like an anxiety vest or calming sprays.</li></ul><p>In the not-unlikely event that you and your pet have to shelter in different places, your kit should also include:</p><ul><li>Detailed information including contact information for you, your vet, and other emergency contacts;</li><li>A list with phone numbers and addresses of potential destinations, including pet-friendly hotels and emergency boarding facilities near your planned evacuation routes, plus friends or relatives in other areas who might be willing to host you or your pet;</li><li>Medical information including vaccine records and a current rabies vaccination tag;</li><li>Feeding notes including portions and sizes in case you need to leave your pet in someone else's care;</li><li>A photo of you and your pet for identification purposes.</li></ul>
5. Be Ready to Evacuate at Any Time<p>It's always wise to be prepared, but stay especially vigilant in high-risk periods during fire or hurricane season. Practice evacuating at different times of day. Make sure your grab-and-go kit is up to date and in a convenient location, and keep leashes and carriers by the exit door. You might even stow a thick pillowcase under your bed for middle-of-the-night, dash-out emergencies when you don't have time to coax an anxious pet into a carrier. If forecasters warn of potential wildfire, a hurricane, or other dangerous conditions, bring outdoor pets inside so you can keep a close eye on them.</p><p>As with any emergency, the key is to be prepared. As the American Kennel Club points out, "If you panic, it will agitate your dog. Therefore, <a href="https://www.akc.org/expert-advice/home-living/create-emergency-evacuation-plan-dog/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pet disaster preparedness</a> will not only reduce your anxiety but will help reduce your pet's anxiety too."</p>
Evacuating Horses and Other Farm Animals<p>The same basic principles apply for evacuating horses and most other livestock. Provide each with some form of identification. Ensure that adequate food, water, and medicine are available. And develop a clear plan on where to go and how to get there.</p><p>Sheltering and transporting farm animals requires careful coordination, from identifying potential shelter space at fairgrounds, racetracks, or pastures, to ensuring enough space is available in vehicles and trailers – not to mention handlers and drivers on hand to support the effort.</p><p>For most farm animals, the Red Cross advises that you consider precautionary evacuation when a threat seems imminent but evacuation orders haven't yet been announced. The American Veterinary Medical Association has <a href="https://www.avma.org/resources/pet-owners/emergencycare/large-animals-and-livestock-disasters" target="_blank">more information</a>.</p>
Bottom Line: If You Need to Evacuate, So Do Your Pets<p>As the Humane Society warns, pets left behind in a disaster can easily be injured, lost, or killed. Plan ahead to make sure you can safely evacuate your entire household – furry members included.</p>
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