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Thursday, July 30, 2015

HARC's Jennifer Ronk discusses extreme heat and the importance of understanding its health and economic impacts

Heat Waves in Houston

Understanding the effects of extreme heat is not new to Texans.

"Fiery Sun" by pranav licensed under CC BY 2.5

The following article was written by Jennifer Ronk as a complimentary piece to her interview on Houston Public Media.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control, heat waves are the leading cause of extreme weather-related deaths in the US, and the number is rising. Heat-related deaths are also typically highest in urban counties. Often there is an assumption that these deaths only happen in northern cities that are not as well equipped to manage extreme heat, but in 2011, 46 people died from heat-related illness in Texas. More than any other state that year.

As temperatures increase, Houston is interesting because it is in a very hot and humid part of the county, but also has a rapidly growing population. As cities develop, trees and vegetated areas are reduced, natural surfaces are paved, and buildings constructed. Together these changes produce the “urban heat island effect." Research suggests cities are often of 6 to 8ºF hotter than rural areas. This can be particularly challenging in rapidly growing metropolitan areas such as Houston.

Cities such as Houston also often have heat emergency plans. These plans typically involve directing at-risk residents (young children, the elderly, and those with illnesses), to air-conditioned locations during the hottest parts of the day. However, there are still many challenges that a community can face during a heat wave. Outdoor workers are particularly at risk. It is important that outdoor workers are acclimated to the environment and have access to water and shaded areas. Sometimes alternate work schedules are even used, to limit outdoor work during the hottest part of the day.

Electrical grids can become strained during periods of high air conditioning usage, leading to brownouts or even blackouts, potentially putting residents at risk. Increasing energy efficiency, increasing distributed electrical generation, and improving our existing generation, transmission and distribution system can help us build a resilient grid that is better able to address these challenges.

Extreme heat is not new to Texans. But, that does not mean that we can be complacent. With growing development and a growing population, we need to understand the very real health and economic impacts of extreme heat.