Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Science & Environment

Extreme Heat Threatens Elderly, Vulnerable Populations

The increase in global temperatures is forcing scientists and policymakers to grapple with how best to protect the most poor, elderly, and vulnerable among us. 

A new report from Climate Central, a nonprofit science and news organization, warns that rising temperatures are increasingly endangering older Americans. 

An estimated 12,000 Americans die of heat-related causes each year, and 80 percent of them are age 60 and older. The actual number of heat-related deaths could also be much higher, according to other studies. 

“Particularly among poorer elements of the elderly,” noted Daniel Faber, director of the Northeastern Environmental Justice Research Collaborative, “if they don’t have air conditioning, there’s no one there to check on them, they’re socially isolated, and they can’t go out to get resources, then often they can get in trouble and there’s no one there to check it.” 

On the same day the national report came out, the Woods Hole Research Center hosted its own webinar on ways that "fossil-fueled global warming is worsening extreme summer heat, and how that heat is harming our local communities.” 

Ahead of the event, presenter and scientist Zach Zobel said dangerous heat days— when the thermometer reaches around 103 degrees Fahrenheit— will start increasing in frequency.

“Places like Massachusetts will go from only having just a handful of days a year that are within what’s characterized as a dangerous heat level to now seen at three to four weeks in any given year,” he said. 

According to NASA, 2020 has a 93 percent chance of being the hottest year on record. Already, heat kills more Americans each year than any other weatherhazard, including tornadoes and hurricanes.

“Temperature increases that we are likely to see in the next 10, 20, 50 years are proving to be increasingly conservative,” said Faber, of the NEJRC, “so I think heat-related stresses are going to be far more significant than previous studies estimate.” 

This summer, researchers warn, connections between rising temperatures, older populations and COVID-19 are further increasing concerns. 

“There are typically [cooling] centers that open up and take in the most vulnerable populations,” Zobel said. “Well, that’s not really an option in the coronavirus world that we live in. So what heat does is it amplifies any existing crisis and it makes things harder for especially the most vulnerable.” 

Physicians and emergency planners say this summer, the best defense against heat will involvesocial connection: neighbors, friends, and family checking in on each other to stay safe.