Toll of Extreme Heat Soars, and Will Rise More



Researchers have reported a major increase in deaths attributed to extreme temperatures caused by climate change, suggesting this may be the Earth’s future. The number of deaths caused by high temperatures rose 74% from 1980 to 2016, one new study found. Since 1990, the number of deaths tied to extreme cold has increased 31%. The twin studies were released Thursday, CNN reports. The second study says different ways to stay cool would help, because running air conditioners worsens greenhouse gas emissions. “The papers we publish today provide a strong scientific argument that the health dimensions of heat can no longer be overlooked,” said an editorial in the Lancet, which published the studies.

University of Washington researchers looked over records on 64.9 million deaths in nine countries in 2019 and decided that at least 1.69 million of them could be attributed to extreme temperatures: roughly 356,000 to extreme heat and 1.3 million to extreme cold. Those figures could be low, the researchers wrote, and will rise as Earth endures greater extremes. At least 17 types of death can be linked to extreme heat, involving heart and breathing problems, suicide, drowning, and homicides. The elderly, children, and people with chronic health conditions are most vulnerable to heat-related illnesses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention counts more than 3,500 heat-related deaths so far this year, per Axios.

Deaths from extreme heat don’t get much attention because they don’t come all at once, said an environmental epidemiologist at the University of California-San Diego who was not involved in the studies. “It kills many people, but it is not impressive like a hurricane or something,” he said. “It’s just happening all the time, so it is sneaky.” Coupled with a UN report released last week about the state of climate change, it’s clear that “we face a pretty scary future,” said Vijay Limaye, a climate and health scientist who was not involved in either study. “We need to learn from studies like this as we shape our understanding and response to the climate crisis.” (Read more extreme heat stories.)