The 5+ Effects of Oppressive Heat Waves

This year has seen record breaking temperatures across the globe. What is at risk in this increased heat?

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
3-minute read
Episode #293

3. Asphalt can burn you (and your pet).

Asphalt can get as high as 20 degrees hotter than ambient temperatures during a heat wave and hot enough to burn you if touched. In 2018, asphalt along the Hume Highway which links Sydney and Melbourne in Australia actually melted when temperatures exceeded 47.3 degrees Celsius or just over 117 degrees Fahrenheit. The Humane Society warns that your pets can overheat with extended exposure to hot asphalt and thus advises walking them on the grass.

4. Our bodies suffer serious health risks.

Too much heat exposure usually starts with dehydration, heat rash, and muscle cramps. If not addressed, these symptoms can progress to heat exhaustion, which includes dizziness, headache, and fainting, or the more serious heat stroke which involves the inability to sweat, body temperatures above 103 Fahrenheit, and confusion or unconsciousness. People over 65, children, anyone with a medical condition, or those who work outdoors are more at risk.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention records more than 600 deaths in the United States each year due to extreme heat. Hospital emergency rooms in places with prolonged heat waves sometimes also report increases in visits for medical issues not normally associated with overheating, like kidney problems. Can heat exposure have a lasting effect on our organs? There is also evidence that heat disrupts our sleep, our ability to think clearly, and healthy birth rates. More research needs to be done into the longer term effects of heat on our health.

5. Our crops suffer.

It’s no surprise that plant life suffers in extreme heat just as we do. Heat sensitive and widely consumed crops like maize, soy, and spring wheat are likely to be among the most affected. Past heatwaves, like the one in Europe in 2003, saw crop yields for maize, fruit, and even wine drop by as much as 30% in Italy and France.

So what can we do to beat the heat? Climate change poses a variety of risks to our personal safety beyond heat waves. While the issues related to climate change are large scale and can seem daunting, there are still small things we can do as individuals to combat climate change. In the meantime, to beat the heat, drink lots of water, seek out cool, air-conditioned places to hang out, avoid using appliances like the oven or the clothes dryer in the hottest part of the day, and water your plants early in the morning before the heat is at its worst.

Until next time, this is Sabrina Stierwalt with Ask Science’s Quick and Dirty Tips for helping you make sense of science. You can become a fan of Ask Science on Facebook or follow me on Twitter, where I’m @QDTeinstein. If you have a question that you’d like to see on a future episode, send me an email at everydayeinstein@quickanddirtytips.com.

Image courtesy of shutterstock.


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About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.