The city of Jacobabad in Pakistan’s Sindh province set a blistering record temperature of 126°F this summer—a temperature too punishing for the city’s 200,000 people to withstand. In that same summer seven thousand miles away from Jacobabad, the Pacific Northwest experienced a once-in-a-millennium heat dome causing a dangerous health hazard for its population of 13 million people. As a result, 200 people perished.
Extreme heat is here, and new communities must now urgently plan for a scorching future inflicted by climate change. Cities must re-evaluate their infrastructures to keep communities safe and, ultimately, individuals must prepare for their own safety when confronted with an unbearable climate.
Extreme Heat 101
Many factors lead to extreme heat events such as heat domes. The concept that many elements contribute to climate events is known as extreme event attribution. However, most scientists agree that climate change is human-induced, and our warming climate is due to excess greenhouse gas emissions. The most common and well-known greenhouse gas is carbon dioxide. Our oceans absorb excess greenhouse gases, and in consequence, almost all warming occurring on Earth over the past fifty years was in the ocean.
Our oceans are now carbon sinks: Prior to the industrial era, the ocean was, for the most part, carbon neutral. But now, hot air hovers above our oceans, which allows the atmosphere to trap heat under a tight lid. Because oceans do not warm equally—for example, the western Pacific is considerably warmer than the eastern Pacific—a temperature gradient forms causing wind to carry the tight lid of heat to land. This event creates the heat dome as experienced in the Pacific Northwest.
While the Pacific Northwest is known for its drafty and rainy climate, the heat dome created a stifling and intolerable environment blocking temperate airflow. Experts suggest that heatwaves will become more common for communities that previously were immune. Such areas must now reconsider how they are built and how they should repave for the extreme heat.
Home Is Where the Heat Is
Historically, a vicious cycle exists between buildings and climate change: buildings placed in locations with extreme heat often use inefficient air conditioning, which then contributes to the extreme temperature they experience. This cycle has the building sector responsible for roughly 40% of energy usage and 30% of greenhouse gas emissions. For places such as the Pacific Northwest where the vicious cycle was delayed—since they never had to be deeply concerned about air conditioners and cooling centers—the unprecedented heat waves have now brought the issue front and center. New communities are forced to consider urban planning that is both energy efficient and improves upon existing methods that have contributed to urban heat island effect, noticeable in cities such as Manhattan.
Some communities are already making headway.
Portland, a major city in the Pacific Northwest, promotes “ecoroofs,” otherwise known as green roofs, which are a beneficial way to temper heat. Researchers in Phoenix, Arizona, a destination painfully familiar with heatwaves, are committed to cool pavement research, an alternative to street pavement which can reach up to 150°F. Cool pavement can either be reflective or evaporative, depending on if the city experiences rain during its warmest months or not.
Nonprofits in the Midwest, such as Trees Forever in Iowa, commit their resources to urban forestry, setting landmark goals of planting one thousand trees in a single year. Urban forestry not only helps with shading on hot roads but also fosters carbon sequestration, a method of reducing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. For cities that don’t know where to start, the CDC also suggests that cities update building codes and landscaping laws which could improve extreme heat protection.
Cities have an obligation to protect their citizens, with homes or without. If a once-in-a-millennium event occurs, however, individuals must use the resources they have to protect themselves and others.
“Put On Your Oxygen Mask First”
If you have flown an airplane, you know that, in the case of an emergency, you must always put on an oxygen mask before helping someone else. The same goes for a heat wave. To best assist others, we must make sure we are healthy enough to help. If your city sends out a heat wave alert, which can vary from warnings to outlooks, assess whether you are prepared:
Consumption: Drink more water than usual and avoid dehydrating liquids such as caffeine and alcohol. Consider also eating hydrating foods such as fruits, cucumbers, and soups.
Attire: It is best to opt for loose-fitting clothing and light colors, as constrictive and dark clothes will make the heat feel claustrophobic.
Where to go: If you are not near air conditioning, try to stay near the lowest floor of a building or home. If you are home insecure, find your local cooling centers found on maps such as this one provided by PG&E. Take note, however, that extreme heat can dramatically affect city infrastructure by warping roads, railways, and even airport runways. Do not solely rely on transportation for safety.
Once you feel confident about your safety, check on your family, animals, friends, and neighbors who may not have access to air conditioning, shade, or enough water. Consider checking in on those who are aging or have chronic illnesses, as they may be more at risk.
The symptoms of someone who is suffering from a heat-related illness, such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke, are a weak pulse, dizziness, nausea, and high body temperature. Such symptoms should not be overlooked and should be treated as soon as they occur. While you may be able to help with early-stage heat illness such as starting a cool shower, most recommend you call 911 for immediate medical attention.
Climate change is here, which means additional unprecedented heat waves in new communities. A home is not only a house, but it is also a body and planet Earth. While we can all anticipate warmer days ahead, we also can protect the homes in which we inhabit.
*Chelsea Noack is a science writer and editor based in Manhattan. She is passionate about climate change, ocean science, bioethics, technology, and the future of human health.