Remember those lazy, boring, hot summer days as a kid when a parent or a grandparent told you to go outside and find something to do until dinnertime? Nowadays, with dangerous heat waves and wildfire smoke compelling public health authorities to warn people to stay indoors to avoid the heat and the dirty air outside — not just those who are more vulnerable to heat and air pollution (pregnant women, infants and children, the elderly, people living in poverty, outdoor laborers) but everybody — could parents be committing child abuse and neglect for letting their kids be kids and play outside? Probably not, but still — things are getting extreme out there.
You may have read that last week, while we were busy celebrating our independence from a British monarch 247 years ago, humanity was being oppressed by an even more hostile and unforgiving ruler: extreme heat. How hot was it? Bill McKibben says “no human has ever seen it hotter.”
Monday July 3 was the hottest day anyone had ever measured on planet earth. […] The best estimate of climate scientists is that Monday was the hottest day since sometime in the last interglacial period 125,000 years ago, right about the time that other scientists think humans etched the first symbols onto bone and started wearing shells as decorations. In other words, a pretty significant record.
The record heat wasn’t finished on Monday. Angela Fritz and Laura Paddison report that by the end of the week, Monday’s record had been broken… three times!
The planet’s temperature soared again on Thursday to levels not seen in the modern record-keeping era, marking the fourth straight day of record temperatures
The global average daily temperature climbed to 17.23 degrees Celsius (63.01 degrees Fahrenheit) on Thursday, according to the University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer, which uses data from the US National Centers for Environmental Prediction.
It’s been a week of record-breaking temperatures. On Monday, the average global temperature reached 17.01 degrees Celsius (62.62 degrees Fahrenheit), the highest in the NCEP’s data, which goes back to 1979. On Tuesday it climbed to 17.18 degrees Celsius, where it remained on Wednesday.
Before this week, the record in NCEP’s data was 16.92 degrees Celsius and was set in August 2016.
After recording its hottest June on record last month, Planet Earth is on track for 2023 to be the hottest year ever experienced by our species. The extreme heat and resulting wildfires — University of Pennsylvania climate scientist Michael Mann calls it “the new abnormal” — are due to climate change, with an assist from El Nino, a natural climate phenomenon warming the ocean waters of the eastern Pacific and affecting weather in the Northern Hemisphere. We are reminded — if we even need reminding anymore — that climate change is almost entirely being driven by humanity’s heavy use of coal, oil, and methane gas:
“It’s not a record to celebrate and it won’t be a record for long, with northern hemisphere summer still mostly ahead and El Niño developing,” Friederike Otto, senior lecturer in climate science at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and the Environment in the UK, said earlier this week.
“It just shows we have to stop burning fossil fuels, not in decades, now,” Otto said. Temperature records aren’t just numbers, “but for many people and ecosystems it’s a loss of life and livelihood.”
Last month, while we were all being urged to stay indoors and avoid the toxic smoke descending from Canadian wildfires (yesterday, there were 868 active wildfires in Canada, with 516 burning “out of control”, according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre), The PediaBlog suggested steps parents can take to protect their children, whose lungs are uniquely vulnerable to wildfire smoke, from serious harm.
Children are also quite vulnerable to health impacts from extreme heat. Beating the heat takes some planning, as we discovered during a heat wave three summers ago:
We may not identify ourselves as a member of one of these groups of vulnerable people, but we can certainly think of someone we know and love who might be having difficulty during this heat wave. Health providers can help their patients cope with extreme heat by addressing six points to prevent heat-related illness and death:
1. Stay cool: Make sure that your friends and neighbors have access to well-ventilated spaces and air conditioning. Some people may need help getting to an indoor location with air conditioning, like a public library or a shopping mall, to get out of the heat.
2. Plan outdoor activities carefully: Stay out of the hot sun as much as possible. Early morning and evenings as the sun is setting are the coolest daylight hours and are best for outdoor activities during heat waves. Staying in the shade or indoors where it’s cooler is a better idea in the middle of the day when things get really hot.
3. Keep hydrated: Make sure there is plentiful drinking water available and that it is being consumed. Pre-verbal infants and toddlers might demonstrate their thirst with irritability — they can’t tell you with words that they are thirsty. Senior citizens might have to be reminded to drink enough on hot days.
4. Eat: Heat can act like an appetite suppressant, so make sure there is enough food that’s easy to prepare. Keep the refrigerator well-stocked and don’t let food sit out for too long and spoil.
5. Check on other home supplies: In case electricity is lost during an extreme weather emergency, make sure there is a flashlight with fresh batteries and a portable battery-operated radio. Keep cellphones charged. Keep at least a 1-2 week supply of medicine on hand, and find a pharmacy that delivers.
6. Stay connected with family members and friends: Keep in touch and let everyone know you are okay. Call or visit neighbors to check on them too. Try to help people who are too young or too old, too poor or too sick to take care of themselves. When we help them, we help ourselves.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes that many families don’t have access to resources that help protect children against the intensifying challenges of climate change. The AAP adds these points for preventing harm from wildfire pollution and summer heat:
• Check your local Air Quality Index. Adjust your child’s outdoor activities when needed.
• If your child has asthma, ask your pediatrician how air pollution can be added to your child’s asthma action plan.
• Find out about your school’s guidelines for heat and outdoor play and make sure the school follows these guidelines.
• On hot days, make sure your child dresses appropriately, takes breaks, drinks plenty of water, and takes time to get used to the temperature.
• If your child takes medication, ask your pediatrician if it increases your child’s risk for heat illness.
• Use MERV 13 rating or higher filters in your home’s central heating and cooling system, if possible.
• Use public transportation or choose walking and biking when it is safe to do so, consider a zero-emissions vehicle when you purchase your next car, or ask your school to switch to electric school buses.
• Advocate in your community for access to green space for all children and plant trees or participate in tree-planting service events to reduce urban heat effect and clean the air.
Read “Summer Sun, Heat & Air Quality: Tips to Keep Kids Safe” from the AAP here.
Originally published July 12, 2023 on The PediaBlog.