25 May 2012

Killer heat may lead to 150 000 deaths

Killer heat fuelled by climate change could cause an additional 150 000 deaths this century in the biggest US cities if no steps are taken to curb carbon emissions, a report shows.


Killer heat fuelled by climate change could cause an additional 150 000 deaths this century in the biggest US cities if no steps are taken to curb carbon emissions and improve emergency services, according to a new report.

The three cities with the highest projected heat death tolls are Louisville, with an estimated 19 000 heat-related fatalities by 2099; Detroit, with 17 900, and Cleveland, with 16 600, the Natural Resources Defence Council found in its analysis of peer-reviewed data, released.

Concentrated populations of poor people without access to air conditioning are expected to contribute to the rising death tolls.

Thousands of additional heat deaths were also projected by century's end for Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Columbus, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh, Providence, St. Louis and Washington, DC, the report said.

Climate change felt

June, July and August are expected to see above-normal temperatures over most of the contiguous United States, from inland California to New Jersey, and from as far north as Idaho and Wyoming to Texas, Florida and the desert Southwest, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in a forecast.

The last 12 months, from May 2011 to April 2012, were the warmest in the contiguous United States since modern record-keeping began; last month was the hottest April on record for the Northern Hemisphere.

These figures show climate change is already being powerfully felt, and more dangerously hot summer days are in prospect under a business-as-usual scenario, said Dan Lashof, director of NRDC's climate and clean air programme.

NRDC, which with other environmental groups has pushed for curbs on U. emissions of heat-trapping carbon dioxide, is backing a plan by the US Environmental Protection Agency to limit carbon emissions from new US power plants. The EPA is holding public hearings on the dangers of carbon pollution from power plants. The EPA's plan is unlikely to go into effect until after this year's election campaign.

Deadliest days

The deadliest days are those designated Excessive Heat Events (EHEs), often in urban areas where air conditioning is scarce or unreliable, with sizable poor populations and municipal services unprepared for large numbers of people sickened by the heat, Larry Kalkstein, a University of Miami professor who researchers the subject.

The most disastrous heat waves, like the one that killed more than 700 people in the Chicago area in 1995, come when high heat lasts beyond two days in urban areas without plans to reach the most vulnerable populations: the elderly, the obese and those on medication.

Kalkstein praised Chicago for improving its heat warning system, emergency services and cooling centres since then. He also said Philadelphia and Seattle have put measures in place to lessen the risk from excessive heat days.

Asian cities are at risk too

The studies considered cities because that is where two-thirds of the US population lives, Lashof said. There is some evidence that heat deaths in rural areas will also rise, but that is harder to document, he said.

US cities aren't the only ones bracing for the impacts of extreme weather. Ten Asian cities are assessing how ready they are to deal with floods, droughts, heat waves and other expected results of climate change.

The Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network is working in 10 cities in India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam to figure out technical indicators – such as the capacity of water systems, sewage and waste-water services and the size of deforested areas upstream from urban areas – to help plan to protect city residents.

(Deborah Zabarenko, Reuters Health, May 2012) 

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