State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Here Comes the Sun—and the Extreme Heat

A very bright, vivid photo of the sun
Extreme heat. Credit: Drought.gov

We’re only on the precipice of summer, but already a major heat wave has swept much of the Midwest and Northeast, raising serious alarms in the United States and placing more than 94 million people under heat alert in recent days.

After an unprecedented 2023, which was the planet’s warmest year on record, it’s becoming increasingly clear that treacherously hot temperatures are something we’ll need to contend with for the foreseeable future—and they will only intensify as the effects of climate change persist.

“I think a lot of climate scientists, frankly, have been surprised by just how hot it’s been so soon,” Radley Horton, a professor at the Columbia Climate School and climate scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said in a recent interview on the Columbia Energy Exchange podcast. We’re now grappling with the “idea that at [the current] level of greenhouse gas concentrations….we can already have a year—as we’ve had over the latter part of 2023 and early part of 2024—that’s over 1.5°C warmer than the baseline climate.”

Heat is presently one of the highest weather-related killers in the United States, leading to more than a thousand fatalities per year, according to the CDC. However, extreme heat has not received the same classification—and therefore resources—as other disasters like tornadoes and floods. On Monday, dozens of health care, environmental and labor groups united to file a petition asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency to recognize extreme heat as a major disaster, which would grant vital funding and frameworks for responding to this phenomenon.

Heat waves are especially dangerous to populations who are already vulnerable—the elderly, children and newborns, individuals with chronic illness, as well as outdoor workers and those who can’t afford air conditioning. Related and potentially fatal illnesses can include heat exhaustion or heat stroke, but the higher temperatures can also exacerbate underlying or existing health conditions such as heart attacks, strokes or other cardiovascular diseases. The worse air quality and pollution brought about by extreme weather can likewise have an impact on individuals with respiratory conditions.

Historically underserved and lower-income communities have also suffered greater consequences from heat waves, with evidence showing that communities of color and lower-income areas are disproportionately exposed to heat islands, or urbanized centers that have much higher temperatures than their surrounding greener areas. According to the newly released 2024 New York City Heat-Related Mortality Report, which analyzed the effect of heat on the lives of New Yorkers, 350 heat-related deaths occur in the city every year (around 340 caused by underlying conditions that were exacerbated by heat, and approximately seven directly from heat stress), with numbers growing over the past decade and Black New Yorkers more likely to die from heat stress.

To address these critical issues, on July 10–12, Columbia Climate School will host an Extreme Heat Workshop, titled “Emerging Risks From Concurrent, Compounding and Record-Breaking Extreme Heat Across Sectors.” By bringing together multidisciplinary researchers and practitioners, the workshop aims to evaluate and progress the current understanding of heat extremes; pinpoint community needs; and create interdisciplinary infrastructure for assessing these risks on a variety of sectors, including public health, energy and agriculture, with an underlying focus on climate justice throughout these discussions.

As the summer continues, we’ll keep providing coverage of how warming temperatures are affecting our planet. For now, try to stay cool and read some of State of the Planet’s previous articles on heat waves below:

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