20 Frequently Asked Questions About Heat Waves and Their Answers

A: When we think of natural disasters, we usually think of serious crisis-level events like hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes, tornadoes, etc. But these are not the only natural disasters that pose a serious risk to people living in the United States and across the world. Other disasters can occur in the form of more sinister, less obvious natural events, like a sudden and serious change in temperature. When the temperature spikes very high into an uncomfortable and even dangerous realm, that is considered a heat wave.

A: Such events are not discussed as often as other natural disasters. And that's mainly because they are not as newsworthy or eye-opening as hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, or tsunamis. But they are no less dangerous. Extreme spikes in heat can be extremely harmful if one does not prepare for them.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration defines them as follows: "A heat wave is simply a period of unusually hot weather that typically lasts two or more days. The temperatures have to be outside the historical averages for a given area. A couple of 95 degree summer days in Maine, for example, might be considered a heat wave, but a couple of 95 degree summer days in Death Valley would be pretty unremarkable."

Such events are formed by immobile, trapped air. When air is trapped over a landmass and is unable to move around the globe, that air begins to warm up, much like the air in an oven. Again quoting the NOAAA:

"High-pressure systems force air downward. This force prevents air near the ground from rising. The sinking air acts like a cap. It traps warm ground air in place. Without rising air, there is no rain, and nothing to prevent the hot air from getting hotter."

A: Such events are measured by the heat index. According to one resource, “The heat index, also known as the apparent temperature, is what the temperature feels like to the human body when relative humidity is combined with the air temperature. This has important considerations for the human body's comfort. When the body gets too hot, it begins to perspire or sweat to cool itself off.” One of the best ways to protect oneself and others from a heat wave or a deep freeze is to closely monitor weather reports when conditions indicate excessive heat or cold. Here are some terms to watch out for:

  • A heat watch indicates that there is the potential for the heat index to exceed 105-110 degrees within the next 24 to 48 hours.
  • heat warning indicates the heat is expected to exceed 105-110 degrees in the next 12 to 24 hours.

A: The following states are most at risk:

  • Mississippi
  • Oklahoma
  • South Carolina
  • Texas
  • Georgia
  • South Dakota
  • California
  • Alabama
  • Louisiana
  • Hawaii
  • Florida
  • Arizona
  • New Mexico
  • Nevada

A: As the planet continues to warm as a result of climate change, more frequent cases of extreme heat is all but guaranteed. Hot weather is more frequent than it used to be. There is no questioning that. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions:

“Across the globe, hot days are getting hotter and more frequent, while we're experiencing fewer cold days. Over the past decade, daily record temperatures have occurred twice as often as record lows across the continental United States, up from a near 1:1 ratio in the 1950s. Heat waves are becoming more common, and intense heat waves are more frequent.”

A: Yes. Because of the serious risk to human life that such events pose, they are considered natural disasters.

A: According to the CDC, “Extreme heat events can be dangerous to health – even fatal. These events result in increased hospital admissions for heat- related illness, as well as cardiovascular and respiratory disorders. Extreme heat events can trigger a variety of heat stress conditions, such as heat stroke.”

A: The phenomenon that causes this is simpler than one might think. From the experts at the NOAAA, “During heat waves, the air becomes stagnant and traps emitted pollutants, often resulting in increases in surface ozone.”

A: There is usually sufficient warning of a heat wave, as weather predictors often manifest themselves clearly in the days leading up to the event. Keeping an eye on the weather channel is a good way to help prepare for a heat wave. To further prepare for such an event, it’s always a good idea to have fresh water on-hand and at all times. Having shade or something that can create shade, like a large umbrella, is also a good idea. And finally, a first aid kit and electrolyte-rich liquids on-hand can help protect someone during a serious heat event.

A: When humans are exposed to a heat wave, they can experience cramps, swelling, fainting, heat stroke, heat exhaustion, etc. Young children and the elderly are most likely to experience heat exhaustion and other heat-related health hazards.

Such events can also be fatal too, the most concerning risk factor of them all. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 50 Americans die every year from exposure to heat wave weather events. The death toll per capita is much higher in undeveloped countries that do not always have access to air conditioning, clean water, and medical responders.

A: Thankfully, those who pay close attention to heat waves and deep freezes should get plenty of warning that such a weather event is likely to occur. But if you find yourself trapped in particularly hot weather, refer to the following tips:

Drink plenty of water during a heat spike! Drink before you feel thirsty.

Balance water intake during an increase in outside temperature with salt, potassium, and other electrolytes.

If you don't have salt or potassium tablets on hand, eat bananas or raisins.

Heat can KILL. Get out of the sun, seek shaded areas, and get cool as soon as possible.

Apply ice packs to the neck, wrists, ankles, groin, and armpits. Get into cold water if possible.

A heat wave can be lethal. But the worst of such a weather event can be avoided when properly planned for. Don't let you or your family be stuck outdoors and exposed during such an event.

A: The primary difference with these weather events is their extreme and unusual characteristics. Heat events denote temperature surges and drops that are extreme and unusual for that geographic area. A heat spike can cause roads to buckle, making travel by car complicated and preventing emergency medical responders from reaching victims in time. Heat surges can also cause massive damage to agricultural production, potentially disrupting the food supply.

When trying to understand the potential damage of an extreme heat event, it helps to analyze historical events. The worst heat surge event in modern U.S. history was undoubtedly the 1936 North American Heat Wave. This heat wave took place in the middle of the Great Depression and during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The weather event caused catastrophic human suffering and an enormous economic toll. The death toll exceeded 5,000 lives lost, partially because the heat wave destroyed many crops.

A: Such a heat event begins at ranges over 90 degrees Fahrenheit and goes up from there. The effects of a such a heating event are made much worse if the humidity level is also particularly high.

A: DO drink water, stay out of the sun, apply cold presses and ice packs to your neck, wrists, ankles, and groin. Take salt and potassium, as well as electrolytes. Stay cool and in the shade if possible.

Do NOT go outside, exercise, labor physically, stay in the sun, or otherwise overly expose yourself to the heat or exertion.

A: While you should not go outside during such a heat event, if you are outside, try looking over a flat, empty ground. You may see a shimmering-like refraction of light coming up off the ground.

A: While animals tend to be naturally more resilient to extreme changes in temperature than humans are, they are also most certainly at risk. If you have pets, livestock, or other animals under your care, try to get them out of the sun, into a cool place, and be sure they have access to water.

A: Such events are more common in the late spring, summer, and early fall. Such an event can last anywhere from a few hours to several days.

A: Such events are named “waves” for a reason. The waves you are seeing when you stare out over flat land during such a heat event. Such is the result of a phenomenon called “refraction.” Refraction occurs when light that is passing through one substance, like air, changes its speed when it passes through particularly hot air, like the air over a blacktop road during a serious heat event.

A: When people are very hot, they don’t want to do much else but rest in the shade, drink water, and try to stay cool/out of the sun. For laborers, farmers, factory workers, and much of the working class at large, a heat wave can mean a death sentence if workers are forced to work in it. Thankfully, the United States has considerable safety rules and regulations that protect workers during such natural disasters as an extreme spike in heat.

The flip side of that coin, however, is that the economy suffers during such an event. A small price to pay, certainly, to save workers’ lives. But a price nonetheless. Quoting one body of research, “Multiple areas of the economic sector experience reduced worker productivity during heatwaves, especially agriculture and construction. Globally, 2% of total working hours is projected to be lost every year, either because it is too hot to work or because workers have to work at a slower pace.”

A: Alarmingly, scientists have been able to prove that there is a direct correlation between rises in temperature and acts of violence. In a nutshell, when the heat is on, humans are more likely to commit acts of aggression upon each other. This is quite concerning, because as the temperature of the planet warms, it portends that there will be more acts of aggression and violence in the future.

We already know that such surges in temperature result in serious threats to physical health. But what if spikes in heat also create risks to psychological health? What if heat events cause or at least contribute to violence? Quoting some of the research, “On average, overall crime increases by 2.2% and violent crime by 5.7% on days with maximum daily temperatures above 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29.4° C) compared to days below that threshold. Heat only affects violent crimes while property crimes are not affected by higher temperatures.”