The scorching heat wave in Texas has brought little relief to residents. Over the course of two consecutive weeks, Del Rio has experienced daily temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with the mercury soaring as high as 115 F. Adding to the alarm, nighttime temperatures have also reached record highs, failing to provide any respite. National Weather Service data reveals that, except for one day, Del Rio’s lowest temperature remained at a sweltering 80 F or above. Heat during the night disrupts sleep and prevents the body from recovering and cooling down, making minimum temperatures a crucial indicator of the severity of a heat wave, according to experts. It is worth noting that nights are warming at a faster pace than days in many parts of the country, posing a sneaky risk to people’s health.
The Impact of High Nighttime Temperatures
Ben Zaitchik, a professor at Johns Hopkins University specializing in extreme heat research, emphasizes the significance of nighttime temperatures on health. He cites numerous studies that highlight the importance of nighttime temperatures in determining the health impacts of heat waves. The accumulation of heat stress in the body can lead to various complications, while the ability to relax at night becomes critical. Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon points out that this ongoing heat wave has threatened temperature records at both ends of the spectrum in urban centers across the state. Cities such as San Antonio and Houston have come close to setting record minimum temperatures. Moreover, areas like Midland, San Angelo, and Del Rio have experienced record-breaking weekly average temperatures, indicating the prolonged duration and severity of the heat wave triggered by a prolonged period of high pressure.
The Concerning Nature of the Texas Heat Wave
Kristie Ebi, an expert in heat and climate change research at the University of Washington, highlights the particular concern surrounding the high nighttime temperatures and the prolonged nature of the Texas heat wave. Deaths during heat waves typically occur after the 24-hour mark as stress accumulates in the body. Ebi explains that it takes time for the heart to become affected, potentially leading to cardiovascular issues like heart attacks. To combat rising temperatures, individuals employ behavioral mechanisms such as finding cooler places and physiological mechanisms like sweating to lower their core temperature. However, the combination of high nighttime temperatures and the extended duration of the heat wave poses a significant threat to public health.
The Underestimated Toll of Heat Waves
The toll of heat waves is often underestimated, primarily due to the cumulative stresses they impose, which can exacerbate underlying health conditions. After a heat wave subsides, researchers compare death data with previous years, control for other factors, and calculate the number of “excess deaths” – individuals who would not have died if not for the extreme temperatures. Surprisingly, only a small percentage of death certificates during a heat wave attribute “heat” as the underlying cause. Ebi, who specializes in studying heat-related deaths, reveals that approximately half of the excess deaths are attributed to cardiovascular diseases on average. It is crucial to recognize that climate change is contributing to the rising temperatures in Texas. Daily minimum temperatures have increased from 51.9 F in 1970 to 54.2 F in 2020, reflecting a change of approximately 2.3 F, consistent with the overall warming trend in the state. Nielsen-Gammon emphasizes that all aspects of temperature, including daily maximums and minimums, are rising at a similar rate, causing the state to be an average of 2 degrees above the 20th-century average in all seasons.
The ongoing heat wave in Texas, with its high nighttime temperatures, poses significant risks to public health. The severity of the heat wave is evident in the record-breaking temperatures and the prolonged duration. It is essential to acknowledge the cumulative toll of heat waves, as they can worsen underlying health conditions and lead to excess deaths. The rising temperatures in Texas are a manifestation of climate change, emphasizing the need for concerted efforts to mitigate its impact.