Millions at risk as record-breaking heatwaves loom: Experts call for immediate protections

As unprecedented heatwaves threaten millions across the U.S., climate experts and public health officials urge immediate actions to protect vulnerable populations and outdoor workers, warning of severe health risks and infrastructural challenges.

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Millions of Americans face the threat of dangerous heatwaves in the coming weeks as forecasts predict another summer of record-breaking temperatures across the United States. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has identified regions including New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Texas, and Colorado as having a 60%-70% chance of experiencing hotter-than-average summer temperatures. Additionally, the entire Northeast, from Maine to Pennsylvania and New Jersey, along with a large stretch from Louisiana to Arizona, Washington, and Idaho, are also expected to see above-average temperatures from June through August.

“We can expect another dangerous hot summer season, with daily records already being broken in parts of Texas and Florida,” said Kristy Dahl, principal climate scientist for the Climate and Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “As we warm the planet, we are going to see climate disasters pile up and compound against each other because of the lack of resilience in our infrastructure and government systems.”

Texas has already been hit with a series of severe weather events, including tornadoes, unprecedented floods, and record-breaking temperatures. Earlier in May, a destructive storm caused power outages for hundreds of thousands of households around Houston, resulting in at least seven deaths and significant damage to transmission towers and power lines. This storm was linked to a record-shattering heatwave pummeling Central America, driven by a persistent heat dome—a powerful area of high pressure—that has been hovering over Mexico for weeks.

Meanwhile, smoke from Canadian wildfires has blanketed parts of the Midwest, compounding the air quality and health challenges. This year’s summer forecast comes at the tail end of El Niño, a natural climate phenomenon expected to be replaced by La Niña. This transition is anticipated to exacerbate global heating, generating hotter-than-average temperatures across much of the U.S.

The 2024 summer forecast raises significant concerns, especially considering the record-breaking heat experienced in 2023. Last year was the hottest on record for the planet, followed by the warmest winter. NOAA, health officials, and local governments are stepping up efforts to prepare for extreme heat, which increasingly affects areas unaccustomed to dangerous temperatures.

HeatRisk, a new online tool from NOAA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), provides seven-day forecasts focused on the dangers of extreme heat. It considers cumulative impacts, such as the expected duration of the heatwave and both daytime and nighttime temperatures, offering critical information to help protect vulnerable populations.

According to official figures, around 1,200 heat-related deaths occur annually in the U.S., but this number is likely an undercount due to local variations in reporting and investigating heat-related fatalities. Older adults, children, pregnant individuals, people with substance-use issues, and unsheltered populations are among the most vulnerable to extreme heat. This year could be particularly perilous for outdoor workers, especially in states like Florida, where recent legislation has rolled back local regulations guaranteeing access to life-saving shade, water, and breaks.

Despite these rollbacks, some states are taking proactive measures. Washington and Oregon have expedited heat-protection laws for outdoor workers following the deadly 2021 heatwave that caught the Pacific Northwest unprepared. These states join California, Nevada, and Minnesota in implementing statewide occupational heat standards, while others, including New York, are in the process of establishing similar protections.

Public Citizen’s recent report, “Scorched States,” highlights the dire need for worker protections. The report states that up to 2,000 workers die from heat-related illnesses annually, with 170,000 workers suffering injuries. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) forthcoming heat standard rules, expected to be finalized by 2026, aim to address these risks, but advocates argue that immediate action is needed.

Phoenix, Arizona—America’s hottest city—is bracing for another scorching year. Last year, Phoenix endured a month of consecutive days with temperatures exceeding 110°F (43°C), resulting in a record 645 heat-related deaths, a 700% increase over the past decade. The city’s Office of Extreme Heat is extending cooling center hours and expanding tree-planting programs to provide shade in marginalized neighborhoods. However, the impact of the city’s decision to evict a large downtown homeless encampment remains uncertain, as 45% of last year’s heat fatalities involved unsheltered individuals.

The upcoming summer may not only be the hottest on record but could also precede a potentially record-breaking hurricane season. NOAA forecasts up to 25 named storms, including 13 hurricanes. “Record global warmth is often tied to El Niño, but as we transition to La Niña, it still looks to be a potentially record-breaking year. That clearly suggests to me that the anthropogenic signal is there,” said James Marshall Shepherd, director of the University of Georgia’s atmospheric sciences program. Shepherd also expressed concern over the warm ocean temperatures, which could exacerbate the intensity of the hurricane season.

Long-term projections indicate that heatwaves will continue to become more intense and frequent as the planet warms. Attribution studies have decisively linked the increased frequency and severity of heatwaves to human-caused climate change. “These are not your grandparents’ heatwaves,” Shepherd remarked.

Last year, scientists found that the hot and dry conditions leading to devastating wildfires in Canada and extreme heatwaves in Europe and North America would have been significantly less likely without the ongoing effects of fossil fuel-driven global warming.

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