Extreme Weather & Heatwaves: We Must Show the Whole Picture

As heatwaves, wildfires, and extreme weather conditions create nightmare scenarios for residents and businesses in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s essential to consider how different environmental factors impact one another to influence facts on the ground.

How Extreme Weather Impacts Human Health 

Extreme heatwaves make it harder for the body to regulate its temperature, putting extra strain on heart activity, which can trigger heatstroke.

The WHO estimates that the past decade registered over 166,000 heat-related deaths. In the US, extreme heat is responsible for more fatalities than all other weather events, more than lightning, hurricanes, winter, and cold combined across a 10-year average.

Should We Name Heatwaves?

The practice of naming hurricanes and storms has been around for centuries and serves as a way to simplify communication and information exchange in regard to extreme weather events. If we follow that logic, there’s a good argument to be made here that it is time to start naming other majorly impactful climate phenomena like extreme heat waves as they become more common.

Climate Central analysis found that, since the 1970s, 74% of the US experienced more annual extreme heat days, with over 50% of analyzed locations seeing at least 7 additional annual hot days.
In reality, the impact of heatwaves is greater than hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards, or any other weather phenomena because of the fact that it’s ubiquitous, it affects so many people. In California for example, over 30 million people were impacted by dangerous heatwaves during the summer of 2022. I’ve discussed this more in-depth on Fox Weather.

The Major Risks of Extreme Heat Weather

Researchers have found that heat-related hospitalizations can begin at lower heat values in traditionally cooler regions compared to warmer ones. This was also observed during the June 2021 Pacific Northwest heatwave, which resulted in many hospitalizations and hundreds of additional deaths. 

Additionally, USC researchers have revealed that when extreme heatwaves and air pollution coincide, the combined risk of death (21%) can be nearly double the individual effects of extreme heat and poor air quality (6.1% and 5% respectively).

How Heatwaves Impact Business Operations

Businesses also face a number of challenges due to rising temperatures and dry weather:

Power Grid Infrastructure

Extreme heat events can strain energy infrastructure and reduce equipment efficiency. California, which relies on wind and solar energy sources that are more vulnerable to heat, recently warned residents to reduce power consumption.

Rail Services 

Heat causes metal to expand, and different parts of railway tracks can bend or warp as a result. To compensate, train speeds slow during extreme heat events to reduce stress on the track infrastructure and prevent potential derailment scenarios. Slowing down trains results in longer travel times and more delays

Transportation

Both private and commercial vehicles can run into trouble during extreme heat, ranging from AC unit failure to engine overheating. Experts say that tire pressure grows by 1-2 PSI with every 10-degree increase in temperature. As with trains, travel times can become longer as drivers avoid higher speeds to reduce stress on the engine –  or due to unplanned breakdowns when precautions aren’t taken.

Perishable Goods Delivery

Extreme heat impacts a range of cargo as well. From food to medicine, delivery of different perishable items can experience small to large delays or damage to transported goods resulting from extreme heat events. Products that require refrigeration face considerable challenges during heatwaves, and stronger cooling to compensate for hot weather results in higher costs.

How Environmental Conditions Combine to Create Toxic Cocktails

We are seeing how unprecedented temperatures alongside specific weather conditions can dramatically increase the risk and prevalence of wildfires, and trigger a range of knock-on events:

Drought

Long, rainless periods accompanied by dry weather facilitate the right conditions for fires to spark and grow. Arid conditions which dry the soil dehydrate vegetation and turn trees and shrubbery into excellent kindling and fuel to feed larger wildfires.

Wind

Fire needs oxygen to burn faster, and wind delivers this perfectly. In addition to feeding fires, wind can create dry surface moisture and make vegetation more apt to burn easily. High winds can also impact wildfire spread, pushing flames, sparks, and pieces of burning wood into new directions or reinforcing the fire’s advancement speed.

Lightning

The US Forest Service estimates lightning is responsible for 44% of US wildfires. In California, which is notorious for its fire-prone weather conditions, ‘dry lightning’, what the experts call lightning strikes that occur during days with very little precipitation, was responsible for 3 of the most destructive wildfires in the state’s history. Scientists even found that pollution from such wildfires can increase the frequency of lightning strikes that spark these blazes, creating a vicious cycle of extreme weather events that wreak havoc on the air we breathe.

Air Quality

Researchers estimate at least 33,000 annual deaths from pollution are caused by wildfire smoke, with children and the elderly the most at risk. EU commission scientists also warn that toxic wildfire smoke isn’t limited to local regions and can reach hundreds of miles beyond the burning areas and become oxidized and more dangerous over time: ‘We know that breathing in smoke when you are close to a fire is not good, but we have seen that over time it gets worse – up to four times more toxic a day down the road,’ said Professor Athanasios Nenes, atmospheric chemist and principal investigator at the PyroTRACH wildfire research project.

Learn more about how wildfires start, behave, and impact health and infrastructure in this in-depth guide

Bottom Line: When It Comes To Extreme Weather, We Must Consider The Whole Environmental Picture

As different environmental factors combine to impact the likelihood and risk of extreme weather, wildfires and poor air quality, it’s clear that businesses and organizations can’t fully protect the public if they choose to show and monitor some environmental hazards, and not others.

On the other hand, businesses that do integrate a combination of air quality insights, wildfire tracking, and weather intelligence with their offerings to make the full environmental picture visible to their users can prompt more regular engagement and deliver real value that directly meets rising global interests in environmental awareness and health.

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Paul Walsh

Previously at IBM and The Weather Company, I have decades of experience in helping large consumer businesses re-imagine how they systemically leverage weather and climate data in both supply and demand chain systems -- creating integrated enterprise processes that are more responsive and more resilient in the face of increasingly impactful weather conditions. My observations have been featured in the US on The Weather Channel and CNBC, & I've been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, Barron’s, and The New York Times. Connect with me!