Today heat waves in the United States kill more people than natural disasters, and the United Kingdom is estimating a 257 percent in heat related deaths by 2050.
During the pandemic there was an extraordinary “heat dome” that had temperatures rise in areas throughout British Columbia starting on June 24 and cresting towards June 28 and June 29 of 2021. Those temperatures topped at 40 C or 104F.
We were not ready.
People in glass towers without large opening windows or air conditioning had to leave their units. Seniors had nowhere else to go other than their apartments or the street to escape the heat.
And between June 25 to July 1 2021, the B.C. Coroners Service examined 800 deaths, finding that 619 were heat related. They have just released their report on the heat related deaths, and the statistics are telling: 98 percent of the deaths happened inside, with 74 percent in the Fraser and Coastal Health Authorities. Sixty-seven percent were 70 years or older, and 57 percent of the people lived alone.
Most of the people that died did not have ways to cool themselves in their homes.
More than 60 percent of those that died had seen a doctor within the previous month. And deaths were highest among people that had certain mental health challenges, substance abuse, pulmonary disease, asthma, diabetes and anxiety.
The heat dome saw calls to the 911 emergency line double. In 54 percent of the time paramedics arrived within ten and a half minutes. Sadly in 17 times the callers were put on hold, and in six times there was no ambulance that could be dispatched to assist.
In response the coroners service proposed the following:
1. Implement a co-ordinated provincial heat alert and response system (HARS).
2. Identify and support populations most at risk of dying during extreme heat emergencies.
3. Implement extreme heat prevention and long-term risk mitigation strategies.
The City of Vancouver had announced in May of this year that in multifamily homes beginning in 2025 cooling systems must be installed, and that better air filter systems to mitigate pollution and wildfire smoke must be used as of 2023. The air cooling requirement is expected to increase the cost of construction by 3.5 percent. You can take a look at that Council report here.
And in cities, there are two main ways to mitigate heat: by planting trees, and by covering surfaces with non-absorbent materials.
Cities are often ten degrees celsius hotter than surrounding areas because of the urban “heat island” effect. Mortality and strokes increase when the temperature is above 25 celsius.
The Nature Conservancy notes that trees can cool down city streets by as much as two degrees celsius on the hottest days. That does not sound like much but each degree increase in temperature leads to a a three percent or more increase in mortality.
In Sydney Australia adding water features and cool coatings on roads and sidewalk reduces air temperature by 1.5 degrees celsius. Asphalt paving creates a heat sink, absorbing 95 percent of the sun’s exposure. Painting white coloured sealant on paving can reduce road temperatures by 23 degrees fahrenheit according to NASA in New York City applications.
The same cool coatings can be applied to facades and roofs to reflect solar energy away instead of absorbing it.
Some things, like large canopies at street level on commercial streets provide shelter in the winter and cooler sidewalks in summer heat. Bus shelter roofs can be redesigned to provide more shade. Chongqing China on the Yangtze river delta has water misters at bus stops with water chilled to cool the air and passengers.
Community Centres and libraries will now be cooling centres, and if we had ubiquitous public washrooms and water bottle stations that would assist people to be on the street, comfortable and hydrated. Vancouver last year was one of many municipalities that quickly established misting stations and a list of cooling stations during the heat dome.
Checking in on people that are living alone during a heat dome needs to be addressed.
We already have some existing networks to set up a system to check on the vulnerable and the elderly through Canada post, newspaper deliveries, and libraries. I have already written about the City of Toronto library that contacted pandemic isolated seniors to find out how they were doing and to see whether the library could co-ordinate any services for them. Those networks are invaluable and could also be utilized during heat domes to check in on isolated individuals.
This is about creating cities that are canopied and cooler, using surface coating that reflect and not absorb heat.
It is also about co-ordinating services in existing and new networks that can reach out to isolated seniors and others offering alternatives to remaining home in overheated environs.
And once again, we need more of the simple tree which exhales 6,000 pounds of oxygen over a lifetime, improves air quality and lowers temperatures on the hottest days. Trees need to be centred and championed. We should be embracing planting more trees on every city streets and in parks and spaces, and on private properties to change the heat paradigm.
You can read the entire Coroners report on BC Extreme Heat and Human Mortality here.