Heat waves: a markedly unusual hot weather event that lasts for at least three days | Photo: Shutterstock

Extreme weather events are becoming an increasing part of our lives. Here are some tips and strategies to cope with abnormally high temperatures and stay safe during heat waves.

In the context of global warming, heat waves are no longer an exception but becoming a worrisome norm.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) defines a heat wave as "markedly unusual hot weather" for at least three days.

As per their data, the number of heatwave events worldwide has been steadily increasing, and more alarmingly, they're lasting longer.

In a comprehensive global analysis published in Nature Communications, scientists found that heat waves have been increasing in every region of the world since the 1950s.

The average global temperatures have risen by 0.85 °C since 1880, which has had a knock-on effect on extreme weather events.

Global average surface temperature (1880-2022): blue bars indicate cooler-than-average years while red bars show warmer-than-average years | Graph: NOAA

Numbers Never Lie

By any measure, Earth is getting hotter.

According to the WMO, the warmest eight years have all been since 2015, with 2016, 2019, and 2020 in the top three.

In the southern hemisphere, record peak temperatures have been observed in recent years.

For instance, in January 2022, Australia and Uruguay hit their all-time national records with 50.7 °C in Onslow and 44.0 °C in Florida, respectively.

Even places typically associated with colder climates have seen record temperatures.

In the summer of 2021, Canada, Turkey, and Italy all saw their highest temperatures ever recorded, with Italy measuring as Europe's hottest-ever temperature (48.8 °C in Syracuse).

Even in Antarctica, highs of more than 18 °C were reached at the Esperanza base in 2020.

Global average temperatures have also seen a steady rise.

Since 1880, the Earth's temperature has risen by an average of 0.14° F (0.08° C) per decade.

However, since 1981, the rate of warming has more than doubled to 0.32 °F (0.18 °C) per decade.

The year 2022 was the sixth-warmest year on record, with the surface temperature being 1.90 °F (1.06 °C) warmer than the pre-industrial period (1880-1900).

The ten warmest years in the historical record have all occurred since 2010, showing a clear trend of rising temperatures.

This rise in global average temperature, while seemingly small, indicates a significant increase in accumulated heat, driving regional and seasonal temperature extremes, reducing snow cover and sea ice, intensifying heavy rainfall, and changing habitat ranges for plants and animals.

The concept of a global average temperature, while complex due to the vast temperature variations across different regions and times, is crucial for tracking changes in Earth's energy budget over time.

Every month of 2022 ranked among the ten warmest for that month, despite the cooling influence of the La Niña climate pattern in the tropical Pacific.​

Global warming: according to the WMO, the warmest eight years have all been since 2015, with 2016, 2019, and 2020 in the top three | Photo: Shutterstock

Understanding the Risks

High temperatures claim hundreds of lives every year, yet these heat-related deaths and illnesses are preventable.

Individuals can become ill from the heat if their bodies can't adequately cool off.

Factors affecting the body's ability to cool itself include high humidity, which slows the evaporation of sweat, and personal characteristics such as age, obesity, fever, dehydration, heart disease, mental illness, poor circulation, sunburn, and the use of certain prescription drugs and alcohol.

Protecting Yourself from the Heat Wave

Heatwaves are not to be taken lightly.

They pose serious health risks, particularly for older adults, infants, and people with chronic illnesses.

Whether you're young or old, indoors or outdoors, our goal is to help you stay cool and safe when the mercury soars.

Here's how you can prepare for and cope with extreme heat:

  • Stay Hydrated: drink more water than usual - don't wait until you're thirsty to drink. Carry a water bottle while traveling;
  • Rehydrate with Homemade Drinks: Use Oral Rehydration Solution (ORS) or homemade drinks like buttermilk, lassi, lemon water, and rice water to rehydrate your body;
  • Replace Lost Salt and Minerals: Drinking sports drinks can help replenish the salt and minerals you lose through sweat;
  • Abide by the Clock: Stay indoors, specifically between noon and 3 pm when the sun is at its peak;
  • Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol: they will dehydrate you;
  • Dietary Precautions: Keep your meals light and fresh. Avoid high-protein foods and never consume stale food;
  • Keep Cool: Spend as much time as possible in air-conditioned or cool buildings. If your home isn't air-conditioned, consider spending the hottest part of the day in public facilities such as libraries, shopping malls, or community centers. Air conditioning is the primary way to protect yourself against heat-related illness and death. Avoid relying on a fan as your primary cooling device during an extreme heat event;
  • Dress Appropriately: Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing. Wide-brimmed hats can also provide relief from the sun;
  • Avoid Strenuous Activities: Try to restrict activities that are tiring or take up a lot of energy to the cooler parts of the day - early morning or evening;
  • Adapt your Home: Keep your living space cool by using curtains, shutters, or sunshades during the day. Open windows at night for a cooler breeze. Use window reflectors like aluminum foil-covered cardboard to reflect heat back outside;
  • Avoid Heat-Generating Appliances: Try to use heat-generating appliances such as stoves, ovens, dryers, televisions, and lights as little as possible. They will make you and your house hotter​;
  • Take a cool shower or bath: It will make you feel better - but never a cold shower;
  • Protect your Animals: Make sure to provide enough shade and drinking water for your pets or livestock;
  • Use SPF Protection: Apply a reef-safe, broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least SPF 15 or higher about 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours after swimming, sweating, or toweling off;
  • Protective Measures for Outdoor Work: If your job requires you to be outside, wear protective goggles and shoes. Use an umbrella or hat, and keep a damp cloth handy to cool off your head, face, and limbs;
  • Be Aware of Humidity: Remember that high temperatures coupled with high humidity make it more difficult for your body to cool itself down;
  • Never Leave Anyone in Parked Vehicles: Never leave children or pets in a parked car, as temperatures can swiftly rise to dangerous levels;
  • Listen to Your Body: If you start feeling lightheaded, confused, weak, or faint, stop what you're doing immediately and cool down;
  • Learn the Symptoms of Heat-Related Illnesses: Knowing the signs can help you take quick action and prevent severe health problems. They include heavy sweating, weakness, dizziness, nausea, and headache. If these symptoms occur, move to a cooler place, lie down, apply cool, wet cloths to the body, sip water, and seek medical attention;
  • Stay Connected: Regularly check on older or vulnerable individuals in your network to ensure their well-being;
  • Stay Informed: Keep up-to-date with the latest weather forecasts, heat advisories, and health warnings;

Who's at the Most Risk?

Heatwaves pose a danger to everyone, but certain groups are at exceptionally high risk during periods of extreme heat.

These groups can be generally categorized into three main categories: age, health, and socio-economic conditions.

When it comes to age and gender, here's a closer look:

Infants and young children

Infants and children under four years of age are particularly vulnerable during a heatwave because their bodies have a limited ability to regulate temperature effectively.

They depend on others to regulate their environment and provide adequate fluids.

Elderly

People aged 65 years and older are at significant risk because aging bodies do not easily adapt to temperature changes.

In addition, elderly individuals often have pre-existing medical conditions that can be exacerbated by heat and may be taking medications that affect their ability to regulate temperature or perspire

Men vs. Women

There's a degree of scientific debate regarding the differential effects of heatwaves on men and women.

Some studies suggest that men are more likely to die during a heat wave, possibly due to a higher likelihood of engaging in strenuous outdoor activities and a higher likelihood of having chronic illnesses that are exacerbated by heat.

On the other hand, women generally live longer than men and therefore make up a larger proportion of the older population, a group that is more vulnerable to heat.

Additionally, pregnant women are particularly susceptible to heat waves due to physiological changes that affect their ability to regulate body temperature.

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