Turning Up the Heat

You may think that we're just stating the obvious when we say that global warming will bring about more hot days and warm nights. But those hot days can be fatal, particularly when they constitute a heat wave, a prolonged period of very hot weather. In fact, in both the U.S. and Europe, heat waves kill more people each year than tornadoes, floods, and hurricanes combined. An estimated 35,000 people died in Europe because of extreme heat waves in the summer of 2003. During a five-day heat wave in Chicago in July 1995, several hundred died. You don't necessarily hear about other heat waves: Many countries across Africa have been enduring heat waves that last for longer periods of time than they have in the past.

High temperatures can mean high stress on the body, particularly heatstroke. Heatstroke, in extreme cases, can lead to chronic illness and sometimes death (see Chapter 9 for more on global warming's effects on people). Society's most vulnerable — the poor, the elderly, and (especially) the elderly poor are usually the victims of killer heat.

Heat waves also claim livestock. Heat stress can lower livestock's ability to reproduce and increase mortality rates. News reports show that the 2006 heat wave that hit California killed 25,000 cattle and 700,000 chickens and turkeys.

Unfortunately, the future of heat waves is scorching. Heat waves will continue to get more intense and last longer each time they occur. Los Angeles can expect its regular 12 days of heat waves per year to jump to between 44 and 95 days of heat waves a year by 2070 to 2099.

And when people want to cool off, they're adding to another problem — air conditioning and refrigerators working overtime commonly raise the amount of electricity used in cities during heat waves. Climate change will raise peak energy demands because people will reach for the air-conditioning dial, making conservation efforts more difficult.

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