An unprecedented heat wave blanketed the region over the weekend and early this week, with several Hampton Roads communities reporting record temperatures and debilitating heat indices between 109 and 113 degrees.
Thankfully, those extraordinary temperatures are expected to subside by week’s end. But the region should expect to experience these types of extreme-weather events with greater frequency in coming years, which represents a severe risk to public health and safety.
From Maine to Florida, the heat made its mark on the East Coast this week. Norfolk set a record when the temperature hit 102 degrees on Sunday, as did several other places, including cities further north in Connecticut and New Hampshire.
Meteorologists can explain the science at work and why it feels our region was under a broiler for a few days. However, it’s the summer, so a spell of triple-digit heat isn’t unprecedented. And for those visiting for the week, especially those enjoying area beaches, it’s probably welcome.
That’s not the case for people who are at risk in extreme heat — the elderly, very small children and those with preexisting medical conditions. The Centers for Disease Control recommends people in those groups to exercise considerable caution in periods of extreme heat.
That’s also true of our region’s homeless population, though finding relief from the sun is more difficult for these individuals. Businesses discourage folks from hanging around their property, even in search of shade, and there aren’t a lot of places that accommodate the destitute.
Of course, one need not be homeless to be at risk from heat illness or stroke. The casualties in many of the nation’s worst heat waves were low-income residents of major cities, where temperatures tend to be higher and for whom air conditioning is an unaffordable luxury.
It was comforting to see several Hampton Roads cities enact protocols to keep people safe.
Norfolk encouraged residents to visit a recreation center if they needed to get out of the heat. Newport News opened city offices during the afternoon on Sunday, when temperatures were at their highest. James City County, Suffolk and other communities operated cooling stations to help.
Those efforts were complicated by the coronavirus, a phrase that’s ubiquitous these days. There were occupancy limits and temperature checks for those entering, all done in an effort to slow the spread of the disease as the number of cases rise in Virginia.
Those are necessary steps, but they are likely to discourage people who might be in the greatest need, such as our homeless residents. And they effectively limit the reach of these relief efforts, meaning more people remain at risk.
There’s reason to believe that development and distribution of a coronavirus vaccine will make those precautions unnecessary — with any luck, in the very near future. The heat, however, is likely to be a more frequent foe in the coming years.
Not only are temperatures rising on average, but the number of uncommonly warm days are more common. Heat events, such as this wave, are more frequent. And, over time, they have a deleterious effect on public health.
Consider that January was the fifth warmest on the 126-year record maintained by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. June was comparatively mild across the United States, but parts of Siberia experienced unprecedented heat, with some towns in the Arctic Circle measuring above 100 degrees.
Numerous climate studies predict that climate change will affect the frequency, location and severity of these events. Extreme heat contributes to periods of drought, to the dryness that accelerates wildfires and to a greater number of heat-related illnesses and death, underscoring the importance of taking comprehensive action to curb global warming.
Ultimately preparedness is key, even as we work to mitigate the effects of a changing climate. Cities that opened cooling stations and municipal buildings in these conditions were smart to do so and should expect to do so more often as temperatures continue to rise.
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