Four ways extreme heat plays havoc with society
Friday, July 22, 2016, 4:10 PM - It's another scorcher of a week in Canada, this time focussed on Ontario, which is not quite near the halfway mark of yet another stretch of extreme heat days.
You might think a days-long heatwave is just a matter of grumbling while keeping cool and waiting it out, but its effects go much, much further than you.
Though extreme heat, particularly extended episodes of it, can absolutely do bad things to the human body, it also does a real number on the society in which humans live.
In no particular order, here are five such effects.
It does bad things to travel and infrastructure
Steel and concrete might seem like immutable constructs, but a quick glance at your high school physics textbooks should remind you of what happens when they heat up too much.
Case in point: Days of 30oC heat in parts of Minnesota last month caused a major highway to actually buckle, prompting cars to catch some air when they took the bulge too fast:
Roads are usually built with temperature swings in mind, with room to expand, but sometimes there's just not enough room to accommodate the expansion, and buckling happens, which Minnesota authorities said can happen to older and weaker pavements.
Trains, riding steel rails at high speed, also have to take the heat into account. Earlier in July, Ontario's GO Train commuter system, stretching from Toronto to encompass many surrounding towns and cities, was forced to issue a 'slow order' on some routes, as a previous heat episode caused some tracks to morph slightly, becoming wider than normal.
Sometimes, it's the asphalt itself that can't take it, as seen in this widely seen photo from India in 2015:
HEAT WAVE. Asphalt starts to melt due to the high temperature in New Delhi, India. (Harish Tyagi/EPA) pic.twitter.com/YqhARbkpea— Rappler (@rapplerdotcom) May 27, 2015
That particular heat wave saw temperatures reach almost 50oC in parts of the country, and Gizmodo reports more than a thousand people died as a result of the extreme conditions.
This year so far has been little better for the country. In May, hundreds of people were again reported killed in some states as temperatures surpassed 40oC, and one town in Rajasthan reached 51oC, claiming the crown of India's all-time hottest recorded temperature.
Your car is not a fan of extreme heat
Your car is one of the most complex pieces of machinery you own, and extreme heat can cause it to malfunction in numerous ways, beyond the engine simply overheating because you haven't changed the coolant in a few years.
As hot as it is outside, it'll get hotter still under the hood, which harms battery life. The American Automobile Association says extreme heat is actually worse for a battery than extreme heat, as it speeds fluid evaporation, encouraging corrosion.
Another problem spot to watch: Your car's tires.
While your tires won't melt when the rubber hits extremely hot asphalt, they're still not designed for extreme temperatures, which causes them to degrade.
It's worse when the tires are older, and you haven't inflated them enough. Though heat can expand the air in tires somewhat, if the tire is still underinflated it can exacerbate the damage from driving in extreme heat, leading to more blowouts.
And that's to say nothing of whatever you may have left in your hot parked car. Aside from food spoiling, medication can be ruined (there's a reason you're told to store those below a certain temperature), it's a real danger to children and pets (which you should NEVER leave in a hot car), and even reduces the integrity of child car seats.
Crime rates rise (and your aggression can rise)
Aside from being a hazard to your health, extreme heat can be a threat to your property or safety, depending on where you live and how much hotter than normal it gets.
There've been a few looks at the correlation between rising heat and crime rates over the years. A recent one in 2014, published in the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management, predicted a notable increase violent crimes in the United States in the century ahead, as climate change raises global average temperatures and extreme heat events become more common.
The lead researcher, Matthew Ranson, used statistics from past years to conclude crime rates are higher in hotter years, and told Accuweather that was due partly to warm weather presenting more chances to commit a crime.
"People leave their windows open, more potential victims are out on the streets and people are more likely to get together and interact," he said.
However, Ranson also said increased heat led to heightened aggression in humans, and other research suggests there may be something to that.
A study published in 2011 found that dehydration in test subjects, brought on about losing one per cent of their body mass from sweating while undergoing strenuous exercise, resulted in a marked decrease in brainpower and an uptick in anxiety.
Heatstroke, another side effect of excessive heat, can cause confusion and even hallucinations. Slate reports that a 2008 South Australian study found a spike in hospital admissions in hot weather among people with mental illness.
It plays havoc with the economy
The economy, the engine of our society, is geared to function in a particular climate paradigm that, in the summer, is getting hotter and hotter with each passing decade. And while navigating the sweltering day-to-day of a single heatwave is taxing, the economic knock-on effects are substantial.
The biggest loser from extreme heat would be agriculture (A 2011 drought in Texas caused crop losses in excess of $5 billion, according to Time Magazine. Imagine that stretched out over half a continent), which will face increased stress due to extreme heat episodes, especially if accompanied by drought. That has a knock-on effect: Crop losses mean scarcity, which means a jump in food prices the following year.
Though farming is the biggest example, that's just the tip of the iceberg. Power demands during heat waves could overload aging grids, hitting offices and factories and harming productivity, to say nothing about increased consumer hydro costs. More ER visits for heat-related illnesses will bloat health budgets.
Increased water demand, for drinking and cooling, could be harder to meet, especially during periods of low rainfall AND extreme temperatures. Fishing suffers as well, as fish can be susceptible to warmer water temperatures, which also encourage the growth of algae.
And that's just the regular effects of a hot day. The more extreme heat events, the more wildfires Canada and other nations are likely to get.
Aside from being a threat to lives if not properly warned, they are an economic drain, especially when they hit infrastructure.
The 2015 season, particularly in western Canada, was a savage one, fuelled by extreme heat and little rainfall. B.C. saw more than 300,000 hectares burned, while almost half a million hectares burned in Alberta.
This season is already infamous, due to the loss of some 10 per cent of structures in Fort McMurray after the fire there burned out of control in May, sending more the 80,000 people fleeing.
The Insurance Bureau of Canada says the cost of the fire to insurers was more than $3.5 billion, and it had such an impact on Alberta's labour market that CBC reports post-fire EI claims jumped 70 per cent.