Classification of heat waves as hurricanes

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New legislation in California hopes to reduce heat-related deaths by classifying heat waves similarly to hurricanes, using categories and names. However, the National Weather Service (NWS) is currently conducting a multi-year experiment to also classify heat waves.

“Globally, people are suffering from the heat because of a deadly lack of awareness,” said Kurt Shickman, director of extreme heat initiatives at the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center (Arsht-Rock), which helps lead the legislative action.

“On the one hand, there is still a low level of awareness of the risks of heat-related illnesses and deaths. People simply do not see themselves as vulnerable. And on the other hand, the heat quietly kills about one half a million people a year worldwide, making it the deadliest natural disaster we face.”

The NWS and the groups behind the new measures are working to close the deadly awareness gap.

Laws to save lives

The proposed new legislation in California comes as two separate bills with one goal, to create a statewide heat-grading system similar to the Saffir-Simpson scale used for hurricanes, to better prepare the public.
Assembly Bill 2238 focuses narrowly on preparing for and protecting people from the heat,” Shickman said.Assembly Bill 2076 covers a wide range of thermal stresses which will result in better heat resistance and attenuation.”

The bills would establish a chief heat officer role, create an interagency heat task force and an extreme heat advisory board.

Shickman added that there have also been discussions about the naming of heat waves.

“Putting a name on a heat wave is [supported] through studies of human behavior, psychology, and finding the right trigger to prompt action to prepare for an extreme heat event,” Shickman noted.

Naming of extreme temperature events could begin as early as this summer.

“Athens, Greece and Seville, Spain are the first two cities in the world to pilot the naming and categorization of heat waves starting May 1, 2022,” Shickman pointed out. Arsht-Rock fully anticipates that other cities, including those in the United States, will similarly follow in the years to come.

The bill also wants to categorize heat waves into a simple numerical system.

“For example, people and authorities prepare and act very differently in the face of an impending Category 1 hurricane compared to a Category 5 hurricane,” Shickman explained. “This bill would give us the same ability to encourage safer citizens in the same way in the face of heat.”

He argued that this effort had merit because social scientists have noted that humans tend to decipher simple messages better than complex messages with too many words.

Matthew Bautista, 24, left, and his friend Bobby Kraemer, 27, right, spend the morning at Surfrider Beach in Malibu as a flurry of unusually warm weather continues April 30, 2021 at Surfrider Beach in Malibu, in California.

“It’s important to make information easily accessible, easily digestible and actionable,” said Makenzie Krocak, a research fellow at the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for Public Policy Research and Analysis. “People are much more consistent in interpreting numbers. That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re more likely to answer, but it does mean the interpretation is more consistent from person to person.”

However, the new categories and names would not necessarily come directly from the NWS, as weather information usually does.

Instead, the legislation charges the California EPA for naming and categorizing heat waves, but the NWS would provide the raw weather data to the EPA and be the conduit for any of their warnings or messages.

“We went to great lengths to design and pilot a heat episode categorization process that would work seamlessly with the NWS process,” Shickman said. “We view the categorization and inclusion of human health outcomes as enhancements to a good alert system, not a replacement.”

Although Shickman also pointed out, “We are not currently working with the National Weather Service, but would very much like to collaborate in the future.”

A similar system is currently in place

The NWS has its own experience”HeatRisk Tool“currently in place.

The tool provides a quick view of the heat risk potential over the next seven days, categorizing the heat both numerically (0-4) and with a color (green/yellow/orange/red/magenta), as well as identification of groups potentially most at risk at each level.

“With this HeatRisk tool, we are able to move away from strict temperature thresholds and towards societal impacts when making decisions about heat advisories, watches and warnings.” said meteorologist Jenn Varian of the NWS office in Las Vegas.

Similarly, Shickman noted that one of the main purposes of the legislation is “to establish categories of heat waves, based on their estimated danger to human health.”

The NWS developed the HeatRisk program to better assess risk and enable people to prepare for upcoming heat events.

“We developed these categories based on climatology, but also based on collaborative work we did with the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]”said Paul Iñiguez, science and operations manager at the NWS office in Phoenix.

Thanks to their collaboration, they were able to determine the annual number of deaths caused by heatstroke and heat exhaustion.

“From there, we were able to determine the threshold temperatures of when you start to see the impacts, the worst heat impacts, and that’s how we determined our yellow level threshold,” Iñiguez explained.

Iñiguez and his colleagues surveyed several hundred locations across the country, then mapped the results to show the varied thresholds across the country.

“Last year in Maricopa County, where Phoenix is ​​located, there were 330 heat-related deaths,” Iñiguez pointed out. “And as we know with climate change, places are getting warmer. Phoenix and the Southwest are showing drastic increases in temperature trends.”

People pose in front of an unofficial thermometer reading 132 degrees Fahrenheit/55 degrees Celsius at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center on July 11, 2021 in Death Valley National Park, California.

The program was developed almost 10 years ago and was used in regional policy five years ago, Iñiguez said.

However, it’s still in its experimental phase and won’t become fully operational for a few years, which could be the timeline California wants to use.

They would like their program to start on January 1, 2024, in accordance with the legislation.

Heat is relative to where you live

One important thing to note is that a number scale alone does not tell the whole story.

“As we’ve seen with hurricanes, the Saffir-Simpson scale only takes into account wind speed and not storm surges or flooding, and that causes the most damage from hurricanes, but it’s not included in the grade scale at all,” said Dr. Peter D. Howe, associate professor of geography at Utah State University.

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“What I hope for are these [new EPA] warnings take into account all possible dimensions of a heat event, so not just temperature but also humidity, duration of the event and nighttime low temperatures the things we know really cause a lot of the impacts the more serious on health.

California is geographically complex, as topography and climatology vary widely across the state.

The highest point of elevation and the lowest point of elevation in the contiguous United States are in California; Mount Whitney and Badwater Basin, respectively.

“Death Valley routinely tops 115 degrees in the summer, but areas like Mount Whitney don’t,” Varian said. “So elevation, type of terrain to the west, and even time of year play a major role in how we issue these excessive heat warnings.”

A few Western NWS offices also take into account the number of tourists coming to the city and the transient population unaccustomed to the extreme heat of the desert.

This could also be a problem if the system were to be implemented in other states.

For example, in Columbia, South Carolina, the heat index must reach at least 110 degrees for a heat advisory to be issued. However, in Minneapolis, a heat advisory is issued when the heat index only reaches 95 degrees.

What is considered extreme heat in one city may be a normal summer day in another.

“100 degrees in Chicago is obviously going to be a much bigger deal,” Iñiguez said. “In Phoenix, 100 degrees in July will actually be a lower than normal day, so it won’t be as drastically different from the climatology. “

It all comes down to how best to protect the public from various heat-related illnesses.

Howe stressed that communication and education will also be paramount. The media will have to communicate the new scale and educators will have to teach it to students, so that they understand what it means.

It doesn’t matter what kind of method they use, like numbers, colors, or names, but rather how effectively they communicate the new system.

“I think the main challenge will be to make sure that this system is used by all of the people who use it,” Howe said. “From broadcast meteorologists to local health departments, to others at the local and state level such as the National Weather Service.”

Research shows that messages need to be repeated early and often to be effective.


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