August 25, 2009 By Blake Harris
Photo: Dr. Peter Wilk testifying before the EPA. (Courtesy PSR.)
Spearheaded by Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) amongst others, there is growing awareness (and a growing body of science to back it up) that global warming is already taking a serious toll on human health, especially in the form of heat waves that will increasingly affect communities in the decades ahead.
More extremely hot summer days are projected for every part of the country in the years to come, predicts in a new report from the National Wildlife Federation and PSR.
"Global warming is one of the gravest health emergencies facing humanity. It's life-threatening and it's affecting us now," said Dr. Peter Wilk, MD, executive director, Physicians for Social Responsibility, in a prepared statement. "The science confirms that the frequency and duration of heat waves has increased significantly over the last 50 years. In the United States, heat waves already kill more people during a typical year than floods, tornadoes and earthquakes combined. Given these worsening trends, taking decisive action to stop global warming becomes a medical necessity."
While the data show indisputable warming over the past several decades, cooler-than-average temperatures across the Midwest and Northeast in summer 2009 make it is easy to lose sight of this long-term trend. According to the most recent science on heat waves, this temporary respite is due largely to natural climate oscillations working in our favor.
"We are nearing the end of a minimum in the 11-year solar cycle during which the Earth is receiving slightly less heat from the Sun," explained Dr. Amanda Staudt, climate scientist, National Wildlife Federation in the statement. "At the same time, the jet stream took an unusually southern track across the nation this summer, bringing more Arctic air and less tropical air to the Midwest and Northeast. These sorts of natural variations will continue to take place as the climate warms."
When it comes to heat waves, communities need to prepare for the years when the natural variations line up in the opposite way: a year with maximum solar heating, a northward shift in the jet stream, and global warming could add up to record hot weather, Staudt added. Furthermore, while it has been pleasantly cool in some parts of the country, the South and the West have been sweltering. At the end of June, numerous daily temperature records were equaled or broken in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. In late July, the Pacific Northwest had an extreme heat wave as a high pressure weather system stalled overhead.
From New York to Los Angeles, the report details 30 large U.S. cities where major risk factors associated with heat-related mortality make residents especially vulnerable to heat waves:
o Number of oppressively hot days each year
o Fraction of homes without central air conditioning
o Ground-level ozone pollution
o City population living in poverty
In May this year, Wilk testified at the EPA public comment hearing in Arlington, Virginia. Here he stated: "...extreme weather events are increasing with results that are difficult to predict and prepare for. As an example, those of us in the medical community were frustrated and finally ashamed of the response to Hurricane Katrina. Hundreds of people received inadequate or no health care at all. As a result, many unnecessary deaths occurred and hundreds of people were left sick without sanitation or clean water supplies. The U.S. medical and public health community is not prepared for multiple, large scale disasters that will manifest themselves as a result of climate change."
This story was compiled from news releases and web reports.