California weighs naming heatwaves to emphasise their deadly nature as third year of drought looks likely

More Americans die on average from heat-related maladies than are killed by tornadoes and hurricanes combined

Graig Graziosi
Tuesday 01 March 2022 22:47 GMT
Related videos: Drought worsens US wildfires

California is considering giving names to major heatwaves similar to the naming system given to hurricanes and winter storms to help underscore the threats they pose as the state enters a likely third year of drought.

The threats posed by extreme heat are significant. On average, extreme heatwaves kill more Americans than both hurricanes and tornadoes combined.

“People don’t think of heat as a hazard,” Kristie Ebi, a professor at the Centre for Health and the Global Environment at the University of Washington, told The Guardian.

That is a result of massive undercounting of heat-related deaths in the wake of extreme heatwaves. While flooding, tornadoes and hurricanes leave scenes of destruction, the impacts from heatwaves are often hard to visualise initially, but no less deadly.

In areas that experience extreme heat, individuals suffering in hospitals will often be diagnosed with kidney or heart failure, but those conditions can be brought on by extreme heat exposure.

Along with potentially naming heatwaves, researchers and policymakers are considering enacting a ranking system to highlight the danger posed by individual heat events. These rankings would be similar to the rankings given to hurricanes and tornadoes.

If California chooses to do so, it will join Athens, Greece and Seville, Spain, where ranking systems are planned to roll out later this year.

Advocates for the naming and ranking systems say the move will help people engage more with the threats posed by the events. They point to past storms, like Hurricane Sandy or Hurricane Katrina, as examples of how a name can help keep climate events firmly planted in the American consciousness.

While the logic may be sound, the data does not necessarily show that names or ranks would help raise awareness, at least according to the National Weather Service.

“The National Weather Service is not aware of any research or evidence that suggests naming heatwaves would raise awareness about heat-related risks,” Kimberly McMahon, a NWS Public Weather Services program manager said.

She did say that names could help increase preparation for such events, however, adding that "even knowing the potential for a heat event or abnormally hot summer can allow preparations to occur further in advance”.

The naming and ranking systems are part of a pair of bills moving through the California legislature aimed at addressing the continually growing climate threat facing the world.

California is in the midst of another historic drought, which is likely to get worse after the state logged its driest January and February in recorded history.

While meteorologists were initially hopeful when January rainfall in the state was recorded as well above average, that trend stopped by mid-month.

“We were so far above normal early in the winter,” Jan Null, a meteorologist with Golden Gate Weather Services told The Mercury News. “But the rainfall season has just flat-lined. It has died.”

Rainfall and snow buildup in the winter is critical for ensuring springtime melt refills water sources across the state. Snowpack readings are the best signifier for what conditions will be like in the summer. Due to the dry winter, it is likely that this summer in California will once again be dry and ideal for wildfires.

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