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Don't call it a heat 'wave': Expert weighs in after a month of record-breaking heat

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

It is hot out. It has been hot for a while. All this month we have been reporting about heat across the country and not just the record-breaking temperatures but record-breaking streaks of high temperatures. Now some researchers argue that we should not call this a heat wave anymore. One of those researchers is Ashley Ward, director of Duke's Heat Policy Innovation Hub. And, Ashley Ward, I believe we've reached you in Durham, N.C., where Duke is. How is it - hot there today?

ASHLEY WARD: It's a hot day today, yes, in Durham. But it's also a July day today in Durham. So...

KELLY: Well, that's the thing. I mean, it's summer. We expect it to be hot. Why doesn't the term heat wave make sense for what we're all currently sweating through?

WARD: So, you know, the term heat wave - typically we would use that when we're talking about short-term periods of extreme heat, three to five days, typically. But we're approaching, particularly in the southwest, you know, 27, 28 days in the triple digits and also accompanying, at times, persistently high overnight temperatures in that same region, which is really the most dangerous cocktail.

KELLY: Your point is it's not a heat wave if the wave just keeps coming and coming and coming.

WARD: If it never ends.

KELLY: Yeah. What do you propose we call it when we have a straight month of triple-digit temperatures?

WARD: I just think it is an extreme heat season. You know, this is not a short-term event and an acute exposure of something. This is a new way of being. This is a new reality.

KELLY: I want to follow on something you touched on - the focus not just on record highs, which make the headlines, but on record-high lows, meaning if the low temperature in a given 24-hour period never falls out of the 90s or out of the 80s, which we have watched - it's been the case in Phoenix for weeks now - nothing ever cools down. Pools don't cool down, rivers, lakes. What are the implications of that?

WARD: That's such a great question. And when we look at health impacts associated with heat exposure, some of the highest associations with adverse health outcomes come with persistently high overnight temperatures, when the body does not have the period of rest or recovery that is required. It also means that people who can afford air condition or afford to be able to run it sufficiently - this taxes those resources even more so when there's no period overnight when you can open your windows and, you know, cool down the house from the day, which has, you know, been how people have traditionally dealt with heat in certain parts of the country.

KELLY: Yeah.

WARD: It gets very hot during the day, but at night there's a reprieve. And we count on that reprieve for our own, you know, health and well-being but also to help cool our homes and our living spaces.

KELLY: Yeah. If we are now living in an era where this is unlikely to be the last heat season, what's the most urgent change we need to make as a society?

WARD: I think there are lots of things that individuals can do and have been doing, and it's time for the federal government, for Congress to step in. And what that looks like is fully funding the National Integrated Heat Health Information System, which provides coordination efforts across federal agencies and down to state and local agencies. We also need to think about a national cooling standard like we have for heat. Your landlord must heat your home but doesn't have to cool your home. The lack of a national cooling standard means that we don't necessarily have cooling in all of our schools, prisons, public housing and affordable housing, nursing homes or long-term care homes. So we need a national cooling standard.

KELLY: You know, as you know, it often takes a crisis, unfortunately, to move the needle on policy. So we get changes in terms of hurricane response when there's been a really awful hurricane, and we can all see those pictures and understand the suffering that it's caused and what we need to do to prevent something like that from happening again. Do you fear it will take a crisis in terms of illness, death resulting from this heat season before we see policy change?

WARD: Certainly. I think that is the case. I think that's a fair statement to make, and I can only hope that this is extreme enough. This has been a horrific heat season, and we have every indication to believe that we will likely face other heat seasons equally as bad or worse.

KELLY: Ashley Ward is director of Duke University's Heat Policy Innovation Hub. Thank you.

WARD: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Lim
Mallory Yu
Mary Louise Kelly
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.