June 17, 2024

Extreme heat kills. It's no joke. Folks shouldn't treat it like one.

If a tornado outbreak killed a few hundred people, it would be remembered as a national tragedy. 

When a heat wave kills a few hundred people, it's the butt of countless jokes. 

People are wimps. Just turn on a fan.

Get used to it like we are down here. It's just called summer.

That kind of nonsense shows up every time there's a prolonged extreme heat event and it's never any less enraging.

Extreme heat is one of the deadliest weather events in the world.

It's not a made-for-television disaster, but it's there whether we see it or not—silently claiming parents and grandparents, striking down perfectly healthy kids at football games, exacting a horrible toll on lower income people already struggling to make ends meet.

Heat waves are responsible for nearly half of all disaster-related fatalities. Heat has claimed an average of 188 lives per year over the past decade, compared to 103 flood-related deaths and 48 tornado-related fatalities over the same period.

Hot temperatures are relative. A 90°F day with humidity requires a level of acclimatization to handle. Someone living in Orlando, Florida, will have an easier time slogging through a scorching day than someone up in Burlington, Vermont. But not even everyone in the south has access to air conditioning. Extreme heat still kills and injures vulnerable people in the humid southeast and the deserts of the southwest.

It's not just a matter of what you're used to.

Lots of homes in the northern United States and throughout Canada still don't have air conditioning—whether by design or simply for lack of affordability. These homes become unbearably hot when the outside temperature climbs above just 80°F. Throw higher readings and some heat-retaining humidity into the mix and you have a recipe for extreme physical stress just trying to exist.

Heat waves also compound on themselves. Humid heat doesn't allow for any relief at night. Hot days spilling into hot nights wrap around you like a wet blanket when you don't have air conditioning to stay cool. Fans don't help in that kind of setup.

You're left with a situation where hundreds of thousands of vulnerable neighbors, friends, and family members are left to their own devices, hoping they see relief at the end of a days-long nightmare. They're lucky if they can get to a cooling center or visit someone for some relief from the stifling air. Many of them are forced to grin and bear the suffering, hoping that they're able to stay hydrated enough to stave off heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

Extreme heat is no joke.

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I contribute to The Weather Network as a digital writer, and I've written for Forbes, the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Popular Science, Mental Floss, and Gawker's The Vane. My latest book, The Skies Above, is now available. My first book, The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, arrived in October 2015.