Heat-Related Illnesses and Climate Change

Warming temperatures are increasing the frequency and severity of future extreme heat events. Without adaptation, this means we may see an increase in heat-related illnesses, hospital visits, and deaths. Rising temperatures can cause heat exhaustion, heat cramps, heat stroke, and heart-related illnesses; heat can also be fatal.  Our decisions and actions can influence the degree to which our community will experience these impacts to our health. Being proactive and making decisions now to safeguard health will help us to be more resilient.

Urban areas are often most at risk of high heat since high concentrations of buildings cause the heat island effect. We may think of only cities as “urban”, but all buildings generate, absorb, and release heat in a way that makes areas with multiple buildings warmer than surrounding areas without buildings.

Illustration of the Urban Heat Island Effect: it is difficult for heat to escape from areas with more buildings, causing them to be warmer than surrounding areas with less development.  Image source: NOAA via Wikimedia Commons.

Cities in cooler regions often see more heat-related deaths because people are less acclimatized to hot temperatures and are less likely to have air conditioning. For example, in August 2003, a heat wave killed 15,000 people in France. Many of the people who died were elderly, isolated, and living in buildings without air conditioning or cross-ventilation. France has since enacted more protective policies, with awareness of the need to protect at-risk groups of people when extreme heat is predicted.

Scientists predict that climate change will increase temperatures in Northern Montana, which can cause negative health impacts.

Scientists predict that climate change will increase temperatures in Northern Montana, which can cause negative health impacts. Indirectly, a warming climate may decrease physical fitness levels by discouraging people from walking, horseback riding, cycling, or engaging in other familiar outdoor activities that boost fitness levels. As climate change is predicted to increase plant-based allergens, people with allergies may be less inclined to engage in rigorous outdoor activity.

Who is most at risk?

People without air conditioning are most at risk, as are older adults, children, people working outside, people who are socially isolated, people who are socio-economically disadvantaged, and people with chronic illnesses. For example, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes increase a person’s sensitivity to heat. Some medications make it more difficult for a person’s body to regulate temperature.

It’s important to note that power outages are a possibility on extremely hot days, since many people using air conditioning at once can stress energy infrastructure. Having a strategy for keeping people cool if the power goes out is an important part of planning for extreme heat.

What can we do on extremely hot days?

We can encourage people to use air conditioning and to decrease their time outdoors on extremely hot days. Wear lighter clothing and take cool showers or baths. It’s also important to watch for signs of dehydration and overheating. Check on people who are most at risk, especially elderly folks, people living in isolation, and people who may need assistance getting to a cooler location. Find more information about actions for extremely hot weather here.

Browning High School 2
The gym at Browning High School is one example of a location that could act as a cooling center on extremely hot days. Photo by Grace Stonecipher.

How can we adapt?

  • Have a policy in place for preparing for and responding to extreme heat to help coordinate response efforts.
  • Provide a cooling center for people to go to when temperatures rise to assist people who do not have air conditioning; however, people who are at risk must have the motivation and the necessary transportation to get to the cooling center.
  • Ensure that energy infrastructure can withstand the high energy demands of extremely hot (or cold) days and that back-up systems exist as well.
  • Recognize that land use decisions have a major impact on how hot it will get in a specific place. Make climate-minded decisions now about development in the Blackfeet Nation, including infrastructure location and building design, to influence how much a specific place or building will heat up on extremely hot days. Plant trees, expand parks, and increase green spaces in and around urban areas to help reduce heat levels.
Planting more trees can help areas with more buildings stay cooler.  Trees provide shade and they can also help to mitigate the urban heat island effect.
  • Implement an effective early warning system for high heat and communicating with people about how to care for their health on hot days can help prevent heat-related illness.
  • Encourage people to get to know their neighbors and to provide help to people who are more vulnerable on hot days, like older adults, children, people who are sick, and people who are overweight.

Next, read about Human Development and Climate Change.

Or, learn about climate change as a health opportunity.

Some of the content found on this page is summarized from the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s report, “The Impacts of Climate Change on Human Health in the United States“, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences’ “A Human Health Perspective on Climate Change“, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s “When Every Drop Counts” to briefly describe some of the possible health outcomes that are most relevant to Blackfeet Country. This page does not include all possible health impacts and outcomes, nor does it include all possible risks and responses.

%d bloggers like this: