With this greater incidence of extreme heat comes the growing risk of heat-related deaths during heat waves. Today in the U.S., more Americans die from extreme heat each year than from all other forms of severe weather combined.
The death toll from recent extreme heat events is staggering, with more than 50,000 heat fatalities in Russia in 2010, and more than 70,000 lives lost during a 2003 heat wave across Europe.
We need only look to Washington, D.C., and surrounding areas this week to understand our growing vulnerability to extreme heat: An estimated 3 million residents confronted 100-degree temperatures during a massive blackout. That means no power to run air-conditioning systems, transportation systems and, in some instances, deliver drinking water.
The unpleasant truth is that Atlanta may be only one extreme heat wave away from a Katrina-like episode. And we are utterly unprepared.
There are effective steps we can take to reduce our growing vulnerability to extreme heat. First, strengthen emergency response plans to provide relief to the most vulnerable residents and ensure the continuing operation of critical infrastructure during heat waves. Second, combat heat island formation through massive tree planting and a resurfacing of rooftops and streets with more highly reflective materials. The restoration of our rapidly diminishing tree canopy is the single most effective option available to moderate the intensity of heat waves and slow our rapid pace of warming.
Brian Stone is a professor of city and regional planning at Georgia Tech and author of “The City and the Coming Climate: Climate Change in the Places We Live.”