How to reduce heat-related deaths from climate change

A team from Colombia University has estimated the worst-case scenario for heat-related deaths by 2080 in the Big Apple, but also identified solutions to prevent them.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters/File
A young girl runs on the rocks under the skyline of lower Manhattan in Brooklyn Bridge Park in the Brooklyn borough of New York. Researchers at Columbia University say soaring temperatures in coming decades could lead to a dramatic increase in heat-related deaths and offer solutions to prevent the worst-case scenario.

Scientists have identified ways to prevent heat-related deaths in New York, which models estimate will rise steeply alongside average summer temperatures in the next 60 years.

A team of scientists from Columbia University generated 33 different models that took into account around 100 years of temperature, population, and mortality data, as well as climate projections. The potential scenarios varied wildly in predictions of the number of heat-related deaths in the Big Apple each year by 2080: anywhere from 167 to 3,331. (For comparison, there were an average of 638 heat-related deaths per year between 2000 and 2006.)

The purpose of the report, however, was not to prophesy doom-and-gloom, but rather to show just how many lives can be saved by adopting preventative measures. And the researchers' recommendations could be applied to other cities as well.

“We know climate change is creating more days of extreme heat, putting more people at risk for death in the coming decades,” first author Elisaveta P. Petkova, project director at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia’s Earth Institute, said in a press release. “Our study shows that many of these deaths can be averted by limiting greenhouse gas emissions and pursuing measures to help people adapt to high temperatures.”

The number one mitigating factor in avoiding heat-related deaths is curbing climate change as much as possible, according to the scientists.

According to a New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) report, “middle range of projections” suggest temperatures will rise between 5.3 degrees Fahrenheit and 8.8 degrees by the 2080s. It predicts that the number of 90-100 degree days days will triple by the 2080s.

“This model may be useful to advocates and policymakers as they pursue efforts to prevent the worst effects of climate change,” senior author Patrick Kinney, director of the Climate and Health Program and professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Columbia’s Mailman School of Public Health, said in the release.

The widespread installation of air conditioning has been credited with a reduction in heat-related deaths between 1970 and 2000. The cost of purchasing and running air conditioners, however, can be prohibitive for some urban residents. The researchers suggest that heat warning systems and public cooling centers could help to alleviate some of that strain.

Measures to mitigate the so-called urban heat island effect could also help reduce the number of heat-related deaths, the researchers say. Cities tend to bear the brunt of heat waves, as built up areas have less vegetation to absorb heat energy given off by the sun. New York has already taken some steps to reduce the heat island effect, such as installing reflective roofing and planting trees. These practices are already common in Southern cities accustomed to high temperatures, but could be a useful strategy for urban planners in more northern climes.

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