I moved to Chicago in 1994, and the heat-wave of 1995 surprised me. I was used to living in extreme heat in Austin, several of my cheap apartments didn’t have air conditioning. But Chicago was not culturally or politically prepared to deal with the heat of that summer. This year’s heat-wave was taken a lot more seriously by city officials, as Eric Klinenberg reports:
the most visible human drama of climate change is happening in cities. Cities are not merely the population centers where dense concentrations of people are trapped and exposed during dangerous weather events. They are also “heat islands,” whose asphalt, brick, concrete and steel attract the heat while pollution from automobiles, factories and air-conditioners traps it. City dwellers experience elevated heat at all hours, but the difference matters most at night, when the failure of high temperatures to fall deprives them of natural relief. For the most vulnerable people, these “high lows” can be the difference between life and death.
Americans began to take urban heat seriously after 1995, when a record-breaking heat wave — three days of triple-digit heat — baked Chicago. Ordinarily, heat waves fail to produce the kind of spectacular imagery we see in other disasters, like earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes and floods. Heat doesn’t generate much property damage, nor does it reveal its force to the camera or naked eye. Heat waves are invisible killers of old, poor and other mostly invisible people. Until the summer of 1995, medical examiners and media outlets often neglected to report heat-related deaths altogether.
But the great Chicago heat wave changed things. It caused so much suffering that at one point nearly half the city’s emergency rooms closed their doors to new patients. Hospitals were not the only institutions stretched beyond capacity by the heat. Streets buckled. Trains derailed. The power grid failed. Water pressure diminished. Ambulances were delayed.
There were “water wars” in poor neighborhoods, where city workers cracked down on residents who opened fire hydrants for relief. There were surreal scenes at City Hall, where members of the mayor’s staff declined to declare a heat emergency, forgot to implement their extreme heat plan and refused to bring in additional ambulances and paramedics.
And there was Mayor Richard M. Daley, telling reporters: “It’s hot. It’s very hot. But let’s not blow it out of proportion,” while the morgue ran out of bays and the medical examiner had to call in a fleet of refrigerated trucks to handle the load. When the temperatures finally broke, 739 Chicagoans had died as a result of the heat wave.
Chicago learned from the disaster, and today it is a national leader in planning for the next acute heat emergency. The city compiles a list of old, isolated and vulnerable residents, and public workers contact them when dangerous weather arrives. City officials and community organizations promote awareness and encourage residents to check in on one another. The local news media treat heat waves as true public health hazards. Everyone knows how perilous the new climate can be.
Unfortunately, Chicago keeps getting reminders. In the early July heat wave, despite its improved emergency response system, Chicago reported more heat deaths than any other city or state. And this week the Union of Concerned Scientists released “Heat in the Heartland,(PDF)” a study that reports an increased incidence of dangerous hot weather throughout the Midwest in the past 60 years, including elevated evening temperatures and more heat waves lasting three days or longer. Along with Chicago, the report singles out St. Louis, Detroit, Minneapolis and Cincinnati as being at risk, but also cites public health research predicting more heat waves in towns and cities throughout the Midwest and Northeast.
(click here to continue reading Is It Hot Enough for Ya? – NYTimes.com.)
Rising temperatures are not just a concern for the future. Dangerously hot weather is already occurring more frequently in the Midwest than it did 60 years ago.
The report, Heat in the Heartland: 60 Years of Warming in the Midwest, presents an original analysis of weather data for five major urban areas — Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Minneapolis, and St. Louis — as well as five smaller nearby cities.
The results from the analysis are clear: Hot summer weather and heat waves have been increasing in cities in the nation’s heartland over the last six decades on average. The report documents this trend, explores its health implications, and looks at what the largest cities are doing to adapt to these changes and protect their residents.
High temperatures can lead to dehydration, heat exhaustion, and deadly heat stroke. Very hot weather can also aggravate existing medical conditions such as diabetes, respiratory disease, kidney disease, and heart disease.
Urban populations, the elderly, children, and people with impaired health and limited mobility are particularly susceptible to heat-related illness and death.
Now if only someone could come up with a good (non-financial) reason for the Tea Party and other GOP factions to support a national policy dealing with climate change…