Naming and categorising heatwaves the same way as hurricanes are would reduce the number of deaths caused by them as well as highlight the world’s changing climate, according to international think tank – The Atlantic Council.
From 1998-2017, more than 166,000 people died because of heatwaves, including more than 70,000 that died during the 2003 heatwave in Europe, according to the World Health Organisation.
Heatwaves are described as a period of abnormally and uncomfortably hot and humid weather for at least three days, however, they aren’t categorised by severity or length.
Hurricanes on the other hand are categorised from one to five in terms of its intensity and are given names.
Kathy Baughman McLeod is director and senior vice president of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center at The Atlantic Council.
Working on the intersection between business and future environmental risk, her old job at Bank of America involved planning the investment of US$125 billion into eco-friendly projects by 2025.
She also led a team at the Nature Conservancy using natural infrastructure (and tailored insurance policies) to reduce storm and flood risk in low lying economies through Latin America, Australia, Asia, the US, and the Caribbean.
She told Kim Hill heatwaves have killed more people in the US than hurricanes, floods and tornados combined.
Baughman said naming and categorising heatwaves would give weight to the seriousness of the event.
“I spent 30 plus years in Florida and as a state that experiences so many hurricanes, the naming of hurricanes and the ranking (categories given to them) builds a culture of prevention and preparation. It has a hashtag, it has a media presence, it comes with all sorts of early warnings and it comes with resources to help people prepare, and it can help protect outdoor workers and all of the Amazon delivery people that are out in really hot temperatures, and farm workers, construction workers, it brings a whole set of protections and awareness and we think that naming heatwaves can bring the same culture of prevention and resources to this issue and help save lives.”
Baughman said she has concerns for New Zealand cities too – namely Auckland and Wellington.
“One of the things that’s really interesting is the cities are the least accustomed and prepared and thus often the most impacted because it’s not a factor, it’s not something people think about. What I see for [New Zealand] is it’s more about drier summers and impacting the water supply and exacerbating drought.”
She said New Zealanders don’t have to look far to find ways of mitigating the risks of heatwaves.
“There are some fantastic city plans specifically for heat, and one of the best interventions for cooling cities is nature based and that’s trees.
“Melbourne has a fantastic urban forest program and they not only cool, but they also absorb pollution and help with people that have asthma and it cleans the water, and so often it’s a plan to take out concrete and impervious surfaces that’s absorbing and emanating heat and then you put in trees that absorb and cool it. Often the temperature difference is 14 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Baughman says there does come a risk that increasing forests within an urban area can lead to fires during a heatwave, but proper management of the vegetation helps the benefits outweigh the risks involved.