For my PhD, I research heatwaves and heat stress, with a focus on the African continent. Here I show what the main challenges are for communicating heatwave impacts inspired by a presentation given by Roop Singh of the Red Cross Climate Center at Understanding Risk Forum 2020.
There is no universal definition of heatwaves
Having no agreed definition of a heatwave (also known as extreme heat events) is a huge challenge in communicating risk. However, there is a guideline definition by the World Meteorological Organisation and for the UK an agreed definition as of 2019. In simple terms a heatwave is:
“A period of above average temperatures of 3 or more days in a region’s warm season (i.e. all year in the tropics and in the summer season elsewhere)”
We then have heat stress which is an impact of heatwaves, and is the killer aspect of heat. Heat stress is:
“Build-up of body heat as a result of exertion or external environment”(McGregor, 2018)
Heatwaves receive low attention in comparison to other natural hazards I.e., Flooding, one of the easiest ways to appreciate this attention deficit is through Google search trends. If we compare ‘heat wave’ to ‘flood’ both designated as disaster search types, you can see that a larger proportion of searches over time are for ‘flood’ in comparison to ‘heat wave’.
On average flood has 28% search interest which is over 10 times the amount of interest for heat wave. And this is despite Heatwaves being named the deadliest hydro-meteorological hazard from 2015-2019 by the World Meteorological Organization. Attention is important if someone can remember an event and its impacts easily, they can associate this with the likelihood of it happening. This is known as the availability bias and plays a key role in risk perception.
Lack of Research and Funding
One impact of the attention deficit on extreme heat risk, is there is not ample research and funding on the topic – it’s very patchy. Let’s consider a keyword search of academic papers for ‘heatwave*’ and ‘flood*’ from Scopus an academic database.
Research on floods is over 100 times bigger in quantity than heatwaves. This is like what we find for google searches and the attention deficit, and reveals a research bias amongst these hydro-meteorological hazards. And is mirrored by what my research finds for the UK, much more research on floods in comparison to heatwaves (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envsci.2020.10.021). Our paper is the first for the UK to assess the barriers, causes and solutions for providing adequate research and policy for heatwaves. The motivation behind the paper came from an assignment I did during my masters focusing on UK heatwave policy, where I began to realise how little we in the UK are prepared for these events, which links up nicely with my PhD. For more information you can see my article and press release on the same topic.
Heat is an invisible risk
Heatwaves are not something we can touch and like Climate Change, they are not ‘lickable’ or visible. This makes it incredibly difficult for us to perceive them as a risk. And this is compounded by the attention deficit; in the UK most people see heatwaves as a ‘BBQ summer’ or an opportunity to go wild swimming or go to the beach.
And that’s really nice, but someone’s granny could be experiencing hospitalising heat stress in a top floor flat as a result of overheating that could result in their death. Or for example signal failures on your railway line as a result of heat could prevent you from getting into work, meaning you lose out on pay. I even know someone who got air lifted from the Lake District in their youth as a result of heat stress.
A quote from a BBC one program on wild weather in 2020 sums up overheating in homes nicely:
“It is illegal to leave your dog in a car to overheat in these temperatures in the UK, why is it legal for people to overheat in homes at these temperatures“
For Africa the perception amongst many is ‘Africa is hot’ so heatwaves are not a risk, because they are ‘used to exposure’ to high temperatures. First, not all of Africa is always hot, that is in the same realm of thinking as the lyrics of the 1984 Band Aid Single. Second, there is not a lot of evidence, with many global papers missing out Africa due to a lack of data. But, there is research on heatwaves and we have evidence they do raise death rates in Africa (research mostly for the West Sahel, for example Burkina Faso) amongst other impacts including decreased crop yields.
What’s the solution?
Talk about heatwaves and their impacts. This sounds really simple, but I’ve noticed a tendency of a proportion of climate scientists to talk about record breaking temperatures and never mention land heatwaves (For example the Royal Institute Christmas Lectures 2020). Some even make a wild leap from temperature straight to flooding, which is just painful for me as a heatwave researcher.
So let’s start by talking about heatwaves, heat stress and their impacts.