Meteorology 101: Practicing Heat Safety

| July 24, 2017 @ 8:30 am

Heat safety graphic

It’s been a long time since the summer of 1980, but as a meteorologist serving in the National Weather Service office in Memphis, Tennessee, I will not forget the prolonged heat episode that resulted in over 1,700 deaths. Because of the drought that accompanied the heat, agricultural losses reached 20 billion dollars.

You may find this remarkable, but between 1999 and 2009, more than 7,200 people died from heat-related causes in the United States. That’s an average of 658 per year, according to recent statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Heat, along with its partner, cold, can be dangerous because it sneaks up on you. Eli Jacks, chief of fire and public weather services with NOAA’s National Weather Service, has said, “Heat can be a silent killer because it doesn’t topple trees or rip roofs off houses like tornadoes and hurricanes. Nevertheless, it’s a dangerous weather condition for which people should prepare.”

Certain groups of people should be especially careful during hot weather conditions. For example, city-dwellers and those living in the upper floors of tall buildings or in heat-prone regions are most at-risk for heat-related illness. People who have difficulty getting around or who have health conditions are particularly susceptible. The elderly and the very young also merit special attention during periods of high heat and humidity.

The National Weather Service issues heat advisories, heat watches, or heat warnings when conditions reach unhealthy levels by using the heat index. The heat index, also known as the apparent temperature, is what the temperature feels like to the human body when relative humidity is combined with the air temperature. When the body gets too hot, it begins to perspire or sweat to cool itself off. If the perspiration is not able to evaporate, the body cannot regulate its temperature. Evaporation is a cooling process. When perspiration is evaporated off the body, it effectively reduces the body’s temperature. When the atmospheric moisture content, that is, the relative humidity is high, the rate of perspiration from the body decreases, so a body will feel warmer in humid conditions. The opposite is true when the relative humidity decreases because the rate of perspiration increases. The body actually feels cooler in arid conditions.

Unlike other dangerous weather events, the heat can come on slowly, so pay close attention when those indices begin getting over the 103 degree value. Heat safety depends on using common sense. But we also need to be alert to the condition of elderly friends or relatives who can be overcome by the heat quickly.

If you have a question about the weather, drop an email to question at weather brains dot com.

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About the Author ()

Brian Peters is one of the television meteorologists at ABC3340 in Birmingham and a retired NWS Warning Coordination Meteorologist. He handles the weekend Weather Xtreme Videos and forecast discussion and is the Webmaster for the popular WeatherBrains podcast.

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