Lethal Heat Waves in Offing Without Global Action; Heat Index Would Leap in NJ

Tom Johnson | July 17, 2019 | Energy & Environment
New Jersey has averaged three days per year with heat index above 100 degrees Fahrenheit; that could go to 49 days by the end of the century if nothing is done

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Extreme heat forecasts driven by climate change will be so widespread and frequent within the next few decades that the resultant conditions could affect daily life for residents more than any other facet of climate change, according to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

Nearly everywhere in the continental United States, people will experience more days of dangerous heat in the next few decades, according to the study “Killer Heat in the U.S.: Climate Choices and the Future of Dangerously Hot Days.’’

Without global action to reduce heat-trapping greenhouse-gas emissions, the number of days when the heat index — or ‘’feels like’’ temperature — exceeds 100 degrees Fahrenheit would more than double from historical levels to an average of 36 across the country by midcentury and increase four-fold to an average of 54 by late century.

In New Jersey, where historically there have been three days per year on average with a heat index above 100 degrees F, it would increase to 24 by midcentury and 49 by its end if no action is taken to stem climate change.

That is a sobering projection given that in the past most policymakers have been more concerned with forecasts of sea-level rise in New Jersey due to climate change, and its effect on increased flooding, wiping out of real estate values, and impact on the state’s vital $40 billion tourism economy at the Jersey Shore.

As if on cue, the National Weather Service yesterday issued a five-day excessive heat watch for four counties in New Jersey — Mercer, Burlington, Camden and Gloucester — with the heat index forecast to run as high as 110 degrees F at some point. On Monday, it was reported the average temperature of the planet was the warmest on record in June, according to data from NASA.

The UCS analysis suggests, as numerous other studies have warned, the only way to forestall these potential lethal heat waves is to accelerate efforts to curb global warming pollution on the planet to prevent global average temperatures rising no more than 2 degrees Celsius (4.3 degrees F).

Heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke

If people are to be spared the dangers of relentless heat, there is little time to prepare and little room for half-measures, the analysis said. Extended exposure to extreme heat can spike heat-related illnesses, including heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.

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“If we take no action and global heat-trapping emissions continue to rise unabated, as they have in recent decades, across broad swaths of the U.S., extreme heat conditions once measured in days would need to be measure in weeks or months by mid-century,’’ according to the analysis.

For instance, in Trenton historical records show about 24 days per year with a heat index above 90 degrees F — the point at which outdoor workers generally become susceptible to heat-related illnesses. With no action on global warming, it would face 65 days with an index above 90 degrees F; and with slow action (if global average temperatures rise by 2.4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century), it would face 55 days above that heat index.

“Our future promises a hotter climate; there is no way to avoiding that outcome,’’ the analysis said. “It is not a future the children of the 21st century will choose for themselves. The rest of us choose for them.’’

What is to be done? The analysis suggests many economists have advised putting a price on carbon emissions to properly account for the damages caused by a fossil-fuel based economy — one primarily energizing the transportation and building sectors. (The state’s new draft energy master plan recommends, to the extent possible, electrifying those sectors.)

In addition, the analysis recommends governments invest in heat-resilient infrastructure; expand funding programs to provide cooling assistance to low- and moderate-income households; and for the federal government to set up protective occupational standards for workers during extreme heat conditions.