Tucson hit the 100-degree mark for the first time this year on Thursday.
With summer approaching, and more heat on the horizon, the Arizona Department of Health Services and the National Weather Service have teamed up for Heat Awareness Week to communicate the dangers of extreme heat and how to stay cool.
Hotter, drier futureExtreme heat, which ADHS outlines as a period of at least 2 to 3 days of temperatures above 90 degrees, is not a new phenomenon in the Southwest.
But with changes in the background climate, the impacts of the heat can now be felt well beyond the summer, said Larry Hopper, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Phoenix.
“Even on a day when we don’t have excessive heat watches or warnings, the reality is we need to be aware of the heat’s impact every day because of the very hot climate we have across most of the state,” Hopper said.
The latest climate normals from the National Center for Environmental Information, which represent a comprehensive 30-year average of temperatures across the country, showed the Southwest experienced the most pronounced warming, with a decadal increase between half a degree and a whole degree in the most recent period (1991-2020) compared to the previous one (1981-2010).
“As far as what to expect this summer, it looks like we’ll be seeing above-normal temperatures again, which is really what we’ve been seeing pan out every summer for the last few decades,” Hopper said.
Preventable deathsAccording to ADHS records, Arizona has seen a more than 2,400 heat-related deaths over the past decade. Last year, heat-related deaths in the state reached a record 520 fatalities as people endured one of the hottest summers on record.
ADHS also recorded a nearly 20 percent decrease in the number of heat-related emergency department visits in 2020, something that likely exacerbated the death toll, said ADHS climate and health program manager Matthew Roach.
“We believe due to COVID-19 and delayed healthcare seeking behavior that’s been seen in other studies, people were less likely to go to emergency departments, and we believe because of that, that may have led to even more deaths,” Roach said.
“But what’s most regrettable is that we know heat-related death and illness is preventable,” he said.
Extreme heat overwhelms the body’s ability to regulate its temperature. This can lead to heat stress, which has wide-ranging symptoms like headaches, nausea or excessive sweating.
Left untreated, the illness could escalate to more severe cases of heat stroke, which happens when the body’s temperature surpasses 103 degrees, and can be fatal.
The best ways to protect yourself in the face of extreme heat, Roach explained, comes down to three simple things: stay cool, stay hydrated and stay informed.
“The number one preventive action is to stay in an air-conditioned space when it’s hot outside. Remember to hydrate before, during and after going outside, and plan activities during the cooler parts of the day, like the morning. And just really be aware of those weather alerts, or when there’s going to be a heat warning,” he said.
But the effects of extreme heat don’t stop outside – death can also occur indoors, in places or homes where the air conditioning is not running.
A recent study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that people spend nearly 90 percent of their time indoors, which means maintaining an appropriate indoor temperature is crucial during the summer months, Roach added.
“And then you think about people who may be on fixed incomes and not being able to afford their electricity bills, or older adults who have to choose between prescription medications and then what temperature to set the thermostat at,” Roach said.
People in these situations should seek out air conditioned spaces – like libraries, malls or free cooling centers – to get out of the heat. Utility assistance like the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) can also help cover the cost of energy bills.
In Green ValleyL.T. Pratt, public information officer for the Green Valley Fire District, has seen his share of people quickly overwhelmed by the heat – inside and out.
“There are a lot of older homes here with swamp coolers, and we’re always concerned that some of our aging population doesn’t have the means to get out of the heat, or take the precautions to make sure they’re cooling down the house correctly,” Pratt said.
He recommends checking air conditioners and swamp coolers early and often to ensure they’re working properly, and avoid creating an unsafe environment in the home.
Adults over 65 are also particularly vulnerable to heat illness because their bodies can’t adjust to changes as they did when they were younger. They’re also more likely to have chronic medical conditions or be taking certain medications that further impair their body’s ability to regulate temperature.
For these reasons, Pratt said it’s important that those braving the summer months in Arizona set realistic expectations about what they can or should do outside.
“When the weather is nice, people like to get out and go for their hikes and bike rides. And I get it – they want to get out, they want to get exercise. But what they may have been doing in the earlier months of the year with no issue, they have to realize the temperature has climbed, and the potential for dehydration and succumbing to these temperatures accelerates,” Pratt said.
Even those that “escape to Madera Canyon” in search of cooler temperatures can quickly get dehydrated by the low humidity and exertion of hiking in higher elevations, Pratt said, so it’s best practice to always let people know when and where you’re going, and always carry a phone and water.
“If you’re feeling dizzy or lightheaded, if your muscles are wanting to cramp up, if your energy levels are dwindling, that’s your body telling you you’re putting it through the paces so you either need to rehydrate, fill up the old fuel tank, or take a break. Don’t push it,” Pratt said.
“The reality is, you’ve got to protect your body from the heat because, I tell you, just walk outside. It’s here.”