Hot enough for ya’?
It’s safe to say that for tens of millions of people across the United States this summer, the answer to that tired, old rhetorical question is a resounding yes.
Just last week, a rash of triple-digit temperatures killed at least 35 people from the Midwest to the East Coast, according to the Associated Press, including victims in Illinois, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin.
And while temperatures in the eastern half of the country had cooled down a bit by our press time, and though Alabama escaped the worst ravages of this latest summer blast, that doesn’t mean our problems with heat are over.
For example, there is the heat’s deleterious effect on air quality, which is already a problem in the Birmingham area and which came to the forefront again during the week of June 25, when temperatures here soared past 100.
According to Tom Spencer of the Birmingham News, the Jefferson County Health Department advised active children and adults, and people with such lung diseases as asthma, to reduce prolonged or heavy exertion outdoors.
And the effects of the heat also negatively impact our multi-billion dollar agricultural economy, with Alabama’s crops, including corn, cotton, peanuts and soybeans, in desperate need of rain.
“Drought conditions are intensifying across the nation with little precipitation and extreme heat,” CBS-TV 42 reported on July 5. “East Alabama is in extreme drought. Central Alabama is mostly under a moderate drought. The outlook looks bleak for the summer.”
The station added that, “Already the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] is seeing signs of crop deterioration in East Alabama. A few wildfires have sparked up.”
And the New York Times and others have reported that what promised to be a record U.S. corn crop this year is largely dying on the stalk from lack of water. Some farmers in the Midwest, according to the Times, have made dark comparisons to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.
Heat. Drought. Dust. Wildfires. It all seems positively Biblical in proportions. And human beings naturally hunger for some sort of explanation.
One explanation for the extremities in weather – including what the AP reports was 3,215 daily high temperature records set in the month of June in the United States – is the notion of global warming, or climate change. This notion remains controversial, of course, even though its many believers say that there is no reason why it should be controversial, other than right-wing denial and obfuscation.
Seth Borenstein of the AP stirred up a massive amount of comment on the Internet when he published a piece titled “This U.S. summer is ‘what global warming looks like’” on July 3.
“If you want a glimpse of some of the worst of global warming, scientists suggest taking a look at U.S. weather in recent weeks,” Borenstein wrote. “Horrendous wildfires. Oppressive heat waves. Devastating droughts. Flooding from giant deluges… These are the kinds of extremes climate scientists have predicted will come with climate change.”
While stressing that scientists are cautious about attributing any particular weather event to long-term climate trends, Borenstein suggested that many of the predictions made the last quarter century by climate-change believers – including “increased heat waves, more droughts, more sudden downpours, more widespread wildfires and worsening storms” – seem to be coming true.
Borenstein notes that since January 1, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the United States has set more than 40,000 hot temperature records, but fewer than 6,000 cold temperature records.
Others have joined the chorus, as well. Regarding the brutal heat wave at the end of June, NBC-TV Washington’s chief meteorologist, Doug Kammerer, said on air, “If we did not have global warming, we wouldn’t see this.”
But even if you don’t believe in global warming, it seems hard to deny that we are seeing some permanent changes in our weather, changes that will have an impact on us all – perhaps more than we would like to imagine.
One change will likely be the much more frequent use of a term Americans are not particularly in love with – conservation. There have already been pleas by utilities and public officials across the nation this summer to help conserve water and power during periods of extreme heat that put tremendous stress on the system.
However, we focus today not on macro issues and climate debates, but on on giving you practical tips and information that can allow you to take matters into your own hands and pass this hot summer a little more safely and comfortably than you might otherwise.
What is extreme heat? Authorities define extreme heat as temperatures that are substantially hotter than normal – often at least 10 degrees above average for a region – over a prolonged period of time, sometimes several weeks.
Extreme heat can be accompanied by humid conditions or a drought, each of which carry their own problems. During humid conditions, sweat evaporates at a lower rate, which can make the body unable to cool itself adequately.
During droughts, like the kind Birmingham is experiencing, water usage goes up at the same time that water supplies deplete. People also tend to use more power to cool their homes, which can further strain water supplies.
Heatstroke and exhaustion. Heat exhaustion and heatstroke are serious risks in these extraordinary temperatures. There have already been cases of heat-related deaths and hospitalizations across the country. Watch for warning signs of both conditions.
Heat exhaustion is caused by excessive physical exertion in hot, humid temperatures. The victim will usually have cool, damp skin, either pale or flushed. Other symptoms include heavy sweating, headache, nausea or vomiting, dizziness and exhaustion, but body temperature will be near normal.
Heatstroke is far more serious than heat exhaustion. Heatstroke is caused when the body’s internal temperature reaches 104 degrees and can no longer cool itself. Organ damage, brain damage and even death can occur due to heatstroke. Symptoms include red and dry skin; changes in consciousness; rapid, weak pulse; and rapid, shallow breathing. The victim will also have a very high fever, but will not be sweating.
If someone appears to be suffering from heat exhaustion, move them to a cooler place and let them rest. Victims should drink water, but slowly – about a glass every 15 minutes. Applying a cool, damp cloth to exposed skin can also help alleviate heat exhaustion. However, if the victim loses consciousness, vomits, refuses water or appears to be suffering from heatstroke, call 911 immediately.
Those at risk. Certain groups are more at-risk than others in extreme heat. The elderly, children and pets are all particularly threatened by heat waves.
If you have an elderly family member or friend, check on them regularly, especially during the hottest part of the day, to make sure they are okay. Elderly people living on their own should also get to know their neighbors, as isolated older people are more at risk than others. They should also make sure to have any important phone numbers available, like emergency services. (During the heat wave at the end of June, Birmingham police launched “Operation Welfare Check,” in which officers checked the sick, elderly and others at risk.)
Children should be be watched carefully during the heat as well. Fatigue, disorientation or other symptoms of heat exhaustion should be taken seriously and treated appropriately. If they stop sweating, that’s a sign of a far more serious condition. Think of the body like a car and sweat like the air conditioning. Just like a car starts heating up fast when the air conditioning is turned off, a body starts heating up (and getting harmed) fast when it stops sweating.
Protecting the pooch. If you own a pet, try to limit its danger from the heat, too. Under no circumstances should you leave a pet in a parked car. Temperatures can rise quickly, causing dehydration, brain damage, labored breathing and, eventually, death. If you see a pet in a parked car outside of a store, alert a manager as soon as possible. Make sure to provide plenty of water and keep sick, overweight or elderly pets out of the heat as much as possible. If you still want to let your pet have some fun in the sun, provide a source of water, like a kid’s pool or a sprinkler, to help your pet cool off.
Beating the heat. The most important step is fairly obvious: air conditioning. Man’s greatest triumph over nature can protect you from the heat, but be careful with your use. The difference between 72 degrees and 75 degrees in power usage can be substantial, so consider moving the thermostat up a few degrees from where you left it in the spring. And remember, electric fans only circulate air; they can only do so much against the heat.
The Alabama Red Cross also has a few tips for staying safe this summer. Dress for the weather in lightweight, light-colored clothing. Drink plenty of water, even if you’re not thirsty, throughout the day and avoid caffeine and alcohol during the hottest parts of the day. Avoid strenuous activity outdoors. If you can’t resist the siren call of that backyard DIY project, work during the coolest part of the day, early in the morning from 4 to 7 a.m.
Of course the best option might just be to hop in the pool. City-operated swimming pools are open across the city from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. at an admission fee of only $1. For a full list, visitwww.birminghamal.gov, go to parks and recreation, and click swimming pools under related links.
Conserve, conserve. There’s that word again, but we will have to get used to it, especially if the climate really is heating up.
According to the Birmingham Water Works Board, tips for saving water during a drought or heat wave include checking for leaks around your house, limiting how much you water your lawn or garden, and only watering during the early morning or late at night. If you have any ornamental water fixtures, such as fountains or artificial waterfalls, now is the time to turn them off.
To conserve power, tips – in addition to keeping your thermostat set at no lower than 78 degrees – include using your air conditioning only when you are home, turning off such non-essential appliances TVs, stereos and other devices that produce unwanted heat, and using appliances that require a lot of electricity only during off-peak hours.
Don’t forget your emotions. According to health and fitness blogger Shirley Norling, many people tend to focus on keeping cool while giving little thought to the emotional effects of extreme heat. Norling says that people can become irritable, even hostile, when it’s very hot, leading to everything from road rage to suicides. In hot, humid weather, she warns, it may be difficult to get a good night’s sleep, making it tougher for us to feel focused and well-rested. We can become irritable and short-tempered.
To help cope with the emotional effects of hot weather, Norling suggests drinking lots of fluids, especially water, and staying out of the sun as much as possible.
According to health and wellness writer Marilisa Kinney Sachteleben, you can also combat the emotional effects of the summer heat by giving your body extra rest and nutrition and concentrating on relaxation, hydration and maintaining a healthy body temperature.
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