WASHINGTON (AP) – The federal government hopes a new website can help people and local governments beat the increasingly deadly heat of an ever-warming world.
Days after nearly half the country – 154.6 million people – sweated through a scorching heat wave, which for the West, is not quite over, the Biden administration has unveiled Tuesday heat.gov, which includes maps, forecasts and health tips. The government cannot lower temperatures in the short term, but it can reduce the death toll from heat, officials said.
“July 2021 was the hottest month on record on Earth and the summers are getting hotter and more deadly,” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief Rick Spinrad said. “The annual average temperature of the contiguous United States has already warmed over the past few decades and is expected to increase by 5 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit (2.8 to 5 degrees Celsius) by the end of this century.”
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But officials said even though heat is the No. 1 weather killer and the warming gets worse, deaths can still be prevented. This is the purpose of the website.
“We don’t have to accept” heat deaths, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said on Tuesday. “It doesn’t have to be like that.”
The new website is aimed at both local planners to help them decide if it’s too hot for roadworks, to farmers for planting and harvesting advice, and even “to a mum trying to decide this summer: Is it safe for your children to play outside or go to summer camp? Raimondo said.
Pat Breysse, director of environmental health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the forecasts offered by the new website can help authorities plan ahead for extreme heat and protect those most at risk, by setting up cooling centers and providing water, for example.
“There’s a whole host of things we can do with this advance warning from the data that NOAA gives us, especially from a health perspective,” Breysse said. He pointed to previous efforts in Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont to modify weather service heat warnings to make them more effective for New England residents.
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The new website could be used immediately as record high temperatures are predicted for Spokane, Washington and Boise, Idaho — heat in the low to mid-100s, Spinrad said.
The website follows other Biden administration actions on heat, including financial assistance to help with air conditioning for low-income residents, grants to build new cooling centers, upcoming rules for workers outdoors in the heat and help for cities to cool urban heat islands with more tree cover. Calling climate change “an emergency,” but stopping short of invoking emergency measures, President Biden last week promised more action to tackle global warming.
Outside experts said the multi-agency website and action were behind schedule.
“This is an important step in increasing heat risk,” said Marshall Shepherd, professor of meteorology at the University of Georgia and former president of the American Meteorological Society. “For too long, heat has been one of the deadliest weather hazards, yet it languishes from an emergency standpoint,” ignored by the public, media and policy makers. Shepherd said people rush indoors under threat of lightning or a tornado, but strain when the heat index is 100 or higher.
North Carolina State climatologist Kathie Dello said “extreme heat is one of our biggest challenges as a county and I’m glad to see the interagency cooperation.”
It’s important for the website to show that the heat is not just an issue for today “but for the future,” Dello said.
Given warming trends, this summer with its widespread heatwaves “is likely to be one of the coolest summers of the rest of our lives,” Raimondo said. “It’s a pretty scary thing.”
Wildeman reported from Hartford, Connecticut.