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Extreme heat: 'Business as usual' life to end in less than 30 years in the U.S.

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A study found that global warming and demographic shifts will likely contribute to greatly increased exposure of people to extreme heat later this century. (Image via New York Times)

A new study projects that the United States will have a four to six-fold increase in extreme heat exposure by 2070 — and even earlier in the South. Unfortunately, no similar study has been conducted in Australia, writes Dr Anthony Horton.

According to Bryan Jones from the City University of New York, rising temperatures and population growth will combine in Texas and Florida to create a sixfold increase in the number of people exposed to extreme and potentially fatal events from 2041 onwards. When climate and population hotspots coincide, the increase in exposure is larger than either of those on their own, according to Jones. 

It is expected that exposure to extreme heat will rise over this century and beyond and Jones believes that the role played by population increases has largely gone unexplored to date. Along with colleagues, Jones compared data from 11 climate models with their population pattern models and made projections of the number of people exposed to extreme heat between 2041 and 2070. An extreme heat event was defined as any day with a maximum temperature at or above 35°C.

The results predict a four to six-fold increase in extreme heat exposure by 2070, and the hotspots are in the South and East and include Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Tampa, Orlando, Charlotte and Washington DC. Some areas where extreme heat exposure is expected to be lower were identified, however they were limited to those around the Rocky Mountains and Western Great Plains.

According to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control (CDC), 650 to 700 Americans die from extreme heat each year; Jones emphasised that identifying hotspots will assist public health agencies in the identification of higher priority areas in which to deploy resources. As heat doesn’t kill people in a dramatic fashion, like tornadoes or hurricanes, the potential threat of heat events is often understated, according to Jones.

See more information here.

Research such as this needs to be as widely publicised as possible, as it is important not only for people living in the areas identified as higher risk to know they are at higher risk — it is also important that such research is replicated around the world, as we know that extreme heat risk (like climate change) isn’t limited to the United States.

I would like to see similar research conducted in Australia and I suspect many other Australians would too. Prolonged periods of very hot weather are being noticed and commented upon by people in all walks of life and all socio-economic backgrounds here. As a scientist, I am concerned that research into a range of climate related issues are seemingly not on the agenda in Australia and stellar pillars such as the world renowned Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and the Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) are suffering increasingly deep staff cuts at a time when they are needed the most.

It also appears that the long held “without fear or favour” bastion of these pillars has also seemingly ended. If this is really the case, it is a truly sad day for Australia-especially given the many world leading breakthroughs achieved by the former and the proud record of the latter. I feel that it is important that the rest of the world knows this and that they spare a thought for the fine people concerned who have given their best efforts for the good of Australia.

I fear for the future of Australia if this trend becomes entrenched as, by the time the Government realises they have made a tactical error, there won’t be enough trained people left to pick up the slack, as they will have retired, retrained or will be employed elsewhere in the world.

You can follow Dr Horton Anthony on Twitter @DrAnthonyHorton and on his blog The Climate Change Guy.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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