It’s a common yet alarming refrain in climate reporting: we are in uncharted territory, folks. July 3rd – 5th, 2023 were the hottest days in recorded history. In Austin, Texas the heat index reached a scorching 48℃ (118℉). In areas in North Africa, temperatures climbed to 50℃ (122℉). This level of heat puts us right at the threshold of what we can survive as humans – even in the shade.
Heat waves kill thousands of people, and as climate change-fuelled extreme heat waves become more common, there are important steps we can all take to protect ourselves, our loved ones and our neighbours.
The single best piece of advice for most people:
1. Use water to hydrate and stay cool: One of the most crucial aspects of staying cool during a heatwave is staying hydrated. Drink plenty of water throughout the day, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Avoid drinking too much caffeine and alcohol, as they can dehydrate you.
You can also use water to cool your body by misting yourself with a spray bottle, taking a cool bath or dipping your feet in a basin of water.
Ten more top tips to help people stay cool and safe:
2. Keep your home cool: An analysis of the 2021 Western heat dome found that the vast majority of deaths happened inside people’s homes – not outside in the sun. Prepare the coolest space in your home so you can sleep there at night and spend time there in the day if you need to.
Invest in temperature controlling window coverings to reflect heat away. Shut windows and close shutters, curtains, or blinds in the morning to keep cooler air in and the sun out. Open windows and doors when the outdoor temperature goes down below the indoor temperature at night.
3. Use fans wisely: If you don’t have air conditioning, open windows during cooler hours. You can create a cross-breeze by placing fans in front of windows on opposite sides of your home. For a DIY air conditioner, place a shallow pan filled with ice in front of a fan.
4. Dress to stay cool: Choose light-coloured, loose-fitting, and breathable clothing. This will help your body regulate its temperature. Light fabrics like cotton and linen allow air to circulate and wick away sweat, keeping you cooler. Try to cover as much of your skin as possible with these lighter fabrics to limit your direct sun exposure. It’s counter-intuitive, but covering up can keep you cool.
5. Time your outdoor activities: Plan your outdoor activities strategically. Avoid going outside during the peak hours of heat, typically between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you need to be outside, try to do so in the early morning or late evening when the temperature is lower. Do your best to find shady spots to rest.
6. Protect against sunburn: Beyond just being uncomfortable, sunburn can impair your body’s ability to cool down and compound heat-related illnesses. If you have to be outside, it’s important to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays.
Check your local UV Index, wear a wide-brimmed hat, and apply sunscreen with at least SPF 30 to all exposed skin. This is particularly important for babies and young children, whose bodies need extra support to remain cool.
7. Find your local cooling centres: Cooling centres are air-conditioned public spaces that offer temporary support to local residents during heatwaves. These centres play a crucial role in preventing heat-related illnesses by providing a place to keep cool, clean drinking water, and necessary medical assistance for those who may lack these resources.
Make a list of cooling centres in your community ahead of time by reaching out to your local municipality. They are most commonly found in malls, movie theatres, libraries, and community centres.
8. Know when to find a doctor: Be aware of the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heatstroke. These can include heavy sweating, weakness, dizziness, nausea, and a rapid pulse. If you or someone else experiences these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.
9. Adopt a “heat buddy” system: If you live alone and/or are vulnerable, find someone who can check on you and help get you to a cooling center. Or, make a list of vulnerable people in your life to check on during heat events. If you have air conditioning, consider how you can welcome people into your home during heat events to help keep them safe and comfortable.
10. Prepare for power outages: Power outages are common during heatwaves as the grid gets overwhelmed by soaring temperatures. Make sure you have an emergency kit on hand including battery or solar powered flashlights (here is a great option that doubles as a phone charger), a hand-crank radio to receive weather alerts (like this one), two gallons of fresh drinking water per person in your household per day (for at least three days), and basic first aid supplies like gauze and bandages. It’s also important to have non-perishable food items in your pantry that you can rely on until the power returns.
11. Contact a government decision-maker – Your politicians are accountable to you, and in most places they have staff who tell them about the volume of calls they are getting on different subjects. Extreme heat is most lethal for low-income people who are stuck without ways to cool down – like getting to a cooling centre. During a heat wave, you can look up your municipalities website to find contact information for your mayor or council and call to ask that they do everything they can to make sure residents have a place to cool down.
By equipping ourselves with the right resources and looking out for one another, we can stop people from suffering and dying from extreme heat. We also need to take decisive action to address the root causes of these deadly heat waves before they spread out of control. This includes taking immediate steps to get off fossil fuels and reduce global warming pollution.
These are tips for what we can do in an emergency – for the long-term we need solutions at all levels, from planting more trees to provide shade to speeding up the shift off fossil fuels to clean energy.
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