By J. TIMMONS ROBERTS, MELISSA ELIOT and GREGORY WELLENIUS
As our kids headed back to school and we headed into a new season, any slight chill in the air heralding a New England fall continued to be rebuffed by more heat. The achingly hot days of July and August just didn’t seem to want to give way to fall.
Last year, T.F. Green Airport set a record for the number of days over the 80 degrees Farheneit heat index mark since data began to be consistently kept in 1948. So far this year, we’ve had 75 days with a heat index more than 80 degrees, a stunning figure for New England.
How unusual is that? As shown in the graphic, in the 1950s and ’60s there was variation, but an average summer in Rhode Island had just 54 days in which the heat index passed 80. The number has increased each decade — to 60 days in the ’70s and ’80s; 64 days in the ’90s and 2000s; and 71 days in 2010-2014. That’s an extra 2.5 weeks of hot days a year. In 2015, we had 86 days with a heat index over 80 degrees and 2016 will be close to 80 days by the time this post-Hermine warm spell is over.
Yes, there’s always variability — there are still occasional cool years, as in 2009 when there were just over 40 days above 80 degrees. But these years have become far less common. There are more summers with extended warm spells, and recurrent heat.
Is the rise just the result of urban growth and the “heat-island effect” around the airport? No. Population has been stagnant and even shrinking in the past decades. Warwick’s population was 83,000 in 1970, and is 82,000 today. The population of Rhode Island has been flat since the 1990 census.
But just as obesity can cause irreversible damage to the human body, such as diabetes and heart disease, burning fossil fuels too fast is bringing a series of illnesses that can’t be stopped. For years, the oceans have been absorbing much of the extra heat and carbon dioxide we’ve dumped into the atmosphere from fossil fuels. The oceans are expanding as a result, rising 10 inches on the Newport tide gauge since 1930.
As a result of absorbing all that carbon dioxide, oceans are becoming more acidic, threatening coral reefs and many life forms at the bottom of marine food chains. Fishing and farming are becoming unpredictable in Rhode Island. Ask any local fisherman, and he or she will tell you that Rhode Island lobsters have gone to Maine and there are strange tropical species showing up more often.
So does heat matter beyond the immediate discomfort many of us feel? Yes. Recent studies using data from Rhode Island and around the world have repeatedly demonstrated that unusually hot days are linked to excess deaths and excess visits to local emergency departments.
For example, the heat wave that struck southern Europe in 2003 resulted in an estimated 70,000 excess deaths in Paris and across the continent.
Although deadly heat waves make the headlines, studies also show that more moderate heat is also associated with excess deaths and emergency department visits. In fact, because days that are merely warm and not extremely hot are much more common, researchers estimate that the total number of people that die or are hospitalized due to excess heat is much greater for moderately hot days than for extremely hot days.
This line of research has led many state and local governments to implement policies to protect the public from the health risks of excess heat. For example, in Rhode Island the Department of Health’s Climate Change and Health Program is working with partners across New England to develop best practices and policies for heat events. The Northeast Regional Heat Collaborative will help to improve heat response plans and coordination among public health officials, the National Weather Service, the media and other stakeholders.
Additionally, the program is promoting interventions to help communities adapt to warming temperatures, such as assisting vulnerable populations plan for extreme heat and developing green infrastructure in urban areas to reduce the heat-island effect.
The rising temperatures and lengthening summers at T.F. Green Airport show plainly that Rhode Island’s stake in climate change is more than the devastating erosion and flooding we see on our 400 miles of coastline and river valley floodplains. Protecting citizens’ health and property requires we be leaders in both reducing carbon emissions from fossil fuels and in developing resilient communities. Rhode Island can lead, because it must.
J. Timmons Roberts is a professor of environmental studies and sociology at Brown University. Melissa Eliot is the data manager of the university’s Center for Environmental Health and Technology. Gregory Wellenius is an associate professor of epidemiology at Brown.