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Heat Wave Harvey? Push To Name Extreme Heat Events Warming Up

The silhouette of a person standing outside on a hot day.

There's an effort afoot to better identify heat waves – like the one gripping much of the American West right now.

Heat waves have been the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the U.S. for the last 30 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But when it comes to communicating that risk, Kathy Baughman McLeod says extreme heat doesn’t get the same attention as tornadoes or hurricanes do.

Baughman McLeod directs the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, which works to advance community resilience in the face of climate change.

"A tropical storm gets a name when it hits wind speed 'X.' And that’s pretty straightforward. It does or it does not hit that wind speed. But extreme heat and heat waves are really about human vulnerability and the human body," Baughman McLeod said.

A graph showing that temperatures are expected to be above normal for most of the Mountain West in the middle of August.
Credit NOAA / Climate Prediction Center
Climate Prediction Center
Temperatures are expected to be above normal from Aug. 20-24 for most of the Mountain West.

She wants to give heat waves names, much like hurricanes Harvey or Katrina. But heat waves depend on a lot of variables, like where you live, humidity, elevation and so on. What someone in Laramie, Wyo. experiences as a heat wave will be different from what someone in Las Vegas, Nev. does.

Still, Baughman McLeod said it's worth the effort.

“Naming a heat wave gives it the seriousness and conveys the danger appropriately of this risk,” she said.

Baughman McLeod says the real challenge right now is to create a standard definition that can be applied across variables and locations. Then, scientists can start coming up with names.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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