When most people hear the term “extreme weather” they usually picture tornadoes, hurricanes, lightning, tsunamis, etc. One weather event that is highly understated, but on average is the most deadly of all, is a heat wave. A heat wave is defined as a prolonged period of excessively hot weather, usually accompanied by high humidity. This is measured in relation to an area’s normal temperatures for that season, so what is considered a heat wave in one location may be normal temperatures for another location. Children, elderly, and sick people are at more of a risk from a heat wave than others because their body usually can’t handle the increase in temperature as well.
In the United States, there are an average of 400 deaths per year attributed to heat waves. Globally, heat waves cause thousands of deaths per year due to hyperthermia (heat stroke) as well as other heat-related illnesses. In addition to illness, there is a significant increase in crime during a heat wave, mostly in domestic violence, assault, and rape as the heat stresses people out, and some react in violent ways.
The environment is also greatly impacted from a heat wave, and the longer it lasts, the worse it becomes. Heat waves are responsible for massive amounts of crop failure because the crops get too dried out. It can also cause major damage to infrastructures such as the power grids, water supply, and transportation. During the increased temperatures, air conditioners are running much longer than usual, which can overload the power grids. The heat can also cause transformers to blow, resulting in widespread loss of power and the potential for fires. In excessive heat, roads and highways can buckle and melt, which causes interruptions to transportation, and also damages water pipes and other utilities underground.
A heat wave is formed when an area of high pressure strengthens and sits over an area for multiple days. The increased air pressure pushes the warm air down to the surface, and also creates a bubble or dome that doesn’t allow the air to release either, trapping the heat. The heat wave can last several days to several weeks, depending on how long the high pressure stays in one area. Heat waves generally occur in the summer months when temperatures are already higher, and weather patterns tend to stay stagnant for longer periods of time in the summer than they do in the winter.
Be Weather Alert
Heat Advisory: Issued within 12 hours of the onset of the following conditions: heat index of at least 105°F but less than 115°F for less than 3 hours per day, or nighttime lows above 80°F for 2 consecutive days.
Excessive Heat Warning: Issued within 12 hours of the onset of the following criteria: heat index of at least 105°F for more than 3 hours per day for 2 consecutive days, or heat index more than 115°F for any period of time.
Before and During A Heat Wave
Before a Heat Wave hits:
- Gather your In-Home Emergency Kit and make a family emergency plan
- Check insulation in home and around air ducts
- Weather stripping on doors should be sealed and check insulation around windows
- Cover windows with reflective material to reflect sun’s rays
During a Heat Wave:
- Listen to local weather alerts for updates
- Never sit in a stopped vehicle or leave children or pets in there
- Drink plenty of fluids (even if you don’t feel thirsty), both water and drinks with electrolytes
- Avoid alcoholic drinks and caffeine
- Stay on the lowest level of your home, out of the sun
- Keep window coverings closed to help keep heat out
- Wear loose-fitting, lightweight, light-colored clothing
- Don’t do anything strenuous and stay inside
- Use fans, they don’t cool the air but help with sweating
- Eat small meals throughout the day, and include salty snacks because you loose salt when you sweat
- Bring pets inside, if they must stay outside make sure they have shade and plenty of cool water
If you live in an urban area, you are more likely to feel the effects from the heat than a rural area. This is known as the “urban heat island” and happens because in urban areas there is a lot more concrete and asphalt that absorbs the heat. At night time, these still hold in the heat, slowly releasing it, which means the temperatures at surface level don’t cool off like they would in a more rural area.
Some cities will have designated public locations called cooling centers that allow the public in the air conditioning to cool off. You could also go to an indoor public cooled location such as the library, mall, or a movie theater to help avoid the heat if needed.
Heat Related Illness
There are many different illnesses and symptoms that people can have during a heat wave. Knowing the signs and what to do can help save lives.
- Heat edema
- Swelling of hands, feet, and ankles
- Resolves within a few days when heat subsides or body adjusts
- Usually no treatment necessary
- May help to elevate feet if swollen
- Heat Rash
- Also known as prickly heat
- Small rash and some minor swelling forms
- Usually from tight clothing in the heat
- Sweat ducts gets blocked and cause skin to react
- Apply antihistamines, keep uncovered if possible
- Can get infected if worsens, needing antibiotics
- Heat Cramps
- Painful, severe cramps in major muscle groups such as legs and abs
- Usually occurs after over-exertion in heat
- Can be treated by rehydrating with salt-containing drinks such as sports drinks, but stop if getting nauseous
- Go to a cooler location, get out of the heat
- Lightly stretch muscles and gently massage to relieve spasms
- Red, painful skin, possible swelling, blisters
- Take a shower to remove oils possibly blocking pores
- Apply aloe to burns to help cool and relieve pain
- If blistered, apply a clean dressing and seek medical attention if worsens
- Stay out of sun while it heals
- Mild dehydration: thirsty, dry or sticky mouth, not peeing much and dark yellow urine, headache, muscle cramps, dry and cool skin
- Severe dehydration: very dry skin, feeling dizzy, not peeing or very dark yellow urine, rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, sunken eyes, sleepiness, lack of energy, confusion, fainting
- In babies: dry mouth and tongue, no tears when crying, dry diapers for 3 hours, sunken eyes or cheeks or soft spot, sleepiness, lack of energy, irritability
- Severe dehydration requires immediate medical attention and usually an IV of fluids
- For mild dehydration sip on water and sports drinks, cool the body, remove excess clothing, avoid extreme cold
- Heat Stroke
- Body temperature of 105F or higher, red and dry skin, rapid weak pulse, shallow breathing, possibly unconscious
- Call emergency medical services immediately as heat stroke can be fatal
- Move to a cooler environment and out of the sun
- Remove clothing as much as possible and cover with a wet sheet to help cool while waiting for emergency services
- Watch for potential breathing problems
Living in south Florida for most of my life, and now in south Texas, heat is an everyday occurrence. I personally hate the cold, and would much prefer to be in a warmer climate. Summers can be brutal in both of these locations, and I have seen heat waves. Thankfully, nothing to the extreme of losing power, but days that you just can’t even go outside because of the heat. Our electric bill skyrockets in the summer because the air conditioner is working most of the day. My parents have had a pool since I was about 6 years old, so in the summer we would go swimming most days. We would wait until the afternoon or evening when the sun was on the other side of the house, and cool off in the pool. My mom would often bring us out popsicles and juices because it is possible to get dehydrated even in the pool. I have always been most comfortable in a sleeveless shirt, and I’m sure that’s partially because of dealing with the heat my entire life.