Home Science Cities Seek Innovative Strategies to Protect Residents from Looming Extreme Summer Heat

Cities Seek Innovative Strategies to Protect Residents from Looming Extreme Summer Heat

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With more than five weeks until summer officially begins, parts of the country that experienced last year’s extreme heat have been preparing for months.

“We prepare for heat year-round in Phoenix,” said Mayor Kate Gallego. “It’s something that we know is coming, so we have to think about it even on the coldest day of the year.”

Last summer was particularly brutal, with Phoenix enduring 31 consecutive days of temperatures at or above 110 degrees Fahrenheit, breaking a previous record of 18 days set in 1974. In 2023, Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, saw at least 645 heat-related deaths, a 52% increase from the previous year, according to the county’s Health Department.

The heat waves of 2023 highlighted the difficulty of enduring extreme temperatures for extended periods, even in areas accustomed to warm weather. The upcoming months are expected to be equally, if not more, severe. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported that based on global temperatures so far, 2024 is likely to rank among the five warmest years on record, with a 61% chance of being the hottest ever.

In response, cities across the South and Southwest are reevaluating strategies to protect residents during extreme heat. New initiatives include increasing shade in public spaces, strengthening healthcare systems to handle heat wave victims, and reaching out to outdoor workers, homeless populations, and other vulnerable communities.

Phoenix has been developing “cool corridors” by planting trees and resurfacing pavement with reflective coatings to reduce urban heat. A key focus is mitigating high overnight temperatures, which posed a significant challenge last summer. “We were getting low temperatures that were setting records for how hot they were,” Gallego said. “That’s really pushing us to focus on how we design the city — what materials we use and how we protect open spaces, which tend to dissipate heat at night.”

In Miami-Dade County, Florida, Chief Heat Officer Jane Gilbert emphasized protecting the most vulnerable residents. “It’s people who can’t stay cool at home affordably, people who have to work outside, the elderly, and those who rely on buses with unsheltered stops,” she said. The county’s Transportation Department installed 150 new bus shelters last year and plans to add 150 more. With a $10 million grant from the Inflation Reduction Act, the county is also planting trees along roads to increase shade.

Gilbert’s team has been raising awareness about affordable ways to cool homes and educating employers on protecting workers. They also offer training for healthcare practitioners, homeless outreach workers, and summer camp providers.

Nationally, heat is the deadliest form of extreme weather, often called a “silent killer” because its impact on the human body isn’t always obvious. “When a hurricane hits or a wildfire comes through, there’s no doubt about what just happened, but heat is more difficult because we don’t have those same context clues until it gets extreme,” said Ashley Ward, director of the Heat Policy Innovation Hub at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability.

Ward and her colleagues help local and state governments prepare for extreme heat through “heat governance.” Their work includes mitigating heat and developing emergency responses for heat waves. In North Carolina, they’ve helped counties create heat action plans to identify vulnerable populations.

Ward believes officials should treat extreme heat like other disasters such as hurricanes or tornadoes. “People in emergency management and public health have structures in place for various extreme weather events, but not so much for heat,” she said. Last summer was a wake-up call. “That was our category 5 heat event,” she said. “The extreme nature of last summer focused attention on this issue.”

Climate change is increasing the frequency, duration, and intensity of heat waves. Last year was the hottest on record globally, with April being the 11th consecutive month of record-breaking temperatures, according to the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. NOAA predicts above-average temperatures for much of the U.S. in the next three months.

While it’s encouraging to see cities taking extreme heat seriously, Ward emphasized the challenges ahead. Preparing for extreme heat early requires funding, a significant hurdle, especially for rural communities. Addressing underlying social issues, such as homelessness, rising energy costs, and economic inequality, will be even more challenging.

Ward remains optimistic that last summer’s experiences have prompted local governments to act. “What I hope we see going forward is more emphasis on reducing exposures to begin with,” she said, “so that we’re not constantly in response mode.”