States Are Scrambling to Prepare As a Prolonged Heat Wave Spreads in the Midwest and Northeast

Cities are preparing medical services and opening the doors to cooling centers to help individuals survive this week’s heat wave.

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Temperatures could reach the high 90s, with a heat index surpassing 100 degrees, in New York City. Credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

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More than 70 million people are currently under heat alerts as a heat wave spreads across the Midwest and Northeastern U.S. 

From Indiana all the way to Maine, states could be trapped under a heat dome for a week or longer, with high humidity and temperatures set to reach the upper 90s in many areas. Forecasters say the heat wave will be particularly risky for communities in major cities, including New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Indianapolis. 

“The duration of this heat wave is notable and potentially the longest experienced in decades for some locations,” the National Weather Service wrote on social media on Sunday.

Though these conditions are abnormal for typical June weather, experts say the sizzling temperatures are not altogether unexpected as climate change fuels increasingly severe and frequent heat waves. As thermometers inch upward, governments are racing to implement strategies that can help people cool down—and medical professionals are shouting from the rooftops the warning signs for heat stress. 

Heat and Health: The human body works hard to maintain a steady internal temperature, but external conditions can throw this balance into disarray. High heat and humidity can compromise our ability to cool down by sweating, and sap the body of its water supplies, leading to dehydration and sometimes heat stress. Prolonged exposure to heat is also associated with increased rates of depression, kidney disease and cardiovascular issues (My colleague Victoria St. Martin will be publishing a piece about new research in the heat-and-heart world tomorrow, so stay tuned.)

In the past, people have found a brief respite from the heat when the sun went down. However, climate change is stoking higher temperatures deeper into the night, affecting people’s ability to sleep and recover, reports CNN. Another complicating element during a heat wave is that heat tolerance differs from person to person depending on a variety of factors, including age, gender and even where you are living. For example, a person from Miami who is used to the higher temperatures and humidity may face less risks than someone from a typically chilly city in Vermont during the same heat wave. However, on Wednesday, Burlington, Vermont, will be 10 degrees hotter than Miami, according to forecasts. 

Overall, the most at-risk individuals are seniors, children and individuals with chronic health conditions, but heat waves can be dangerous for any person. Signs of heat stress to keep an eye out for include dizziness, fatigue, muscle cramps, clammy skin and nausea. In some cases, these symptoms can turn deadly. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), extreme heat kills at least 1,220 people in the U.S. each year, but many experts say this number is vastly undercounted because heat deaths are notoriously difficult to track

Beating the Heat: In April, I wrote about a new tool created by the federal government that allows users to plug in their zip code to learn what the heat threats are for an upcoming week, denoted by different colors depending on the level of risk. As of today, many states in the upper Midwest are in the danger zone, and set to experience “major” or “extreme” levels of heat with little relief unless they find access to cooling and adequate hydration, according to the tool. These areas are set to expand eastward as the week goes on.

Cities and states across the Midwest and Northeast have launched a suite of tools over the past week to help residents survive potentially deadly temperatures. A number of cooling centers in Vermont, Pennsylvania and New York have officially opened their doors to help people access air conditioned spaces. New York City will also be delivering thousands of “cool kits”—stuffed with goodies such as a cooling towel, cold pack, electrolyte mix and sunscreen—for delivery and other outdoor workers. 

“We want to be clear, this is extremely hot for June, and New Yorkers should not underestimate the heat,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams said at a recent press conference. “With climate change leading to more frequent and intense heat, summers are different than they were before, and so we should expect and be prepared for the hot weather that is coming.”

Medical professionals are currently getting ready for an influx of patients by testing out new cooling methods, such as makeshift shade canopies and ice-filled body bags, reports The New York Times. 

These initiatives are all part of a broader push across the country to better prepare for heat waves. Over the past few years, several cities have created their own “chief heat officers” to coordinate responses, including Miami. My colleague Amy Green wrote about Miami’s CHO last year, while Wyatt Myskow, who writes about the west for ICN, has been steadily covering efforts to ramp up heat resilience in Phoenix, one of the hottest cities in the U.S.

However, some experts say that heat responses in the country are not up to snuff.  For instance, cooling centers often sit empty, partially due to access issues but also because many individuals do not want to sit in a strange—and potentially loud or boring—building to wait out the heat. Planting trees can also be used as a cooling technique, but research shows that neighborhoods of color often have fewer trees and green space, putting individuals at a higher risk of heat stress. 

Even if states implement sweeping heat responses, many are still failing to address the root cause of heat waves, according to Kristina Dahl, a principal climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a climate and health advocacy organization.

“Last summer was the hottest on record, and this summer is shaping up to give 2023 a run for its money,” she said in a press release. “Until we phase out fossil fuels, we can expect our summers to continue getting hotter and hotter and more dangerous and deadly.”

More Top Climate News

Heat is not just bearing down on the U.S.: Over the last week, heat waves killed at least one person in Greece and 19 hajj pilgrims on their journey to Mecca in Saudi Arabia

A new report came out yesterday stressing the heat-related health risks for athletes at the upcoming Olympics in Paris. Titled “Rings of Fire,” the report emphasizes the added pressures on the body while performing physical activity outdoors during a heat wave, which I wrote about in my newsletter on Friday with marathon runners. The last Summer Olympics, which were held in Tokyo, were the hottest in history, and almost one in every 100 athletes experienced a heat-related illness, reports CBS News. 

Meanwhile, a new study found that creating floating solar panels that cover 10 percent of the surface area in many of the world’s lakes could collectively generate four times the amount of power the United Kingdom uses annually. This technology is still being developed and has a long way to go before wide-scale deployment, but could eventually help developing tropical countries meet growing clean energy demands, reports Matt Simon for Grist

In other news, national security experts are warning that extreme weather could disrupt elections around the world this year. In a piece for Foreign Affairs, former senior director for resilience policy on the National Security Council Alice Hill and senior adviser at Climate Central Karen Florini write about the various threats of flooding, heat and wildfires that could keep people from the polls. 

“Although all electoral threats are serious, the ones brought by climate change have the potential to disenfranchise voters even in the absence of malevolent intent,” they wrote. 

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