California plans for a change in climate, and “extreme heat” is the rule

There it is, right on the California Department of Public Health home page. It’s listed there -- no irony intended, I suspect -- under “Other Hot Topics.”

The headline reads: “Extreme Heat Guidance: Preventing and Preparing for Climate Change.”

Now, it sounds like another in the endless string of reports and studies looking at what climate change might do. But this report gets frighteningly close to home, as in WHERE WE LIVE.

There are a number of documents here; the state has done a noticeable amount of outreach to organize and research and coordinate climate change efforts. But the piece that caught my attention is stamped “Draft for Public Comment.” It’s new, submitted by the state’s Heat Adaptation Workgroup at the end of August. Its title is “State of California Extreme Heat Adaptation Interim Guidance Document: Planning for Health and Heat.”

Planning for health and heat. …

The workgroup, whose members included staffers from at least 11 state agencies, was particularly concerned with the extremity, frequency and duration of future heat events. It also explored whether the typical warm season would expand (currently, it’s considered to be May to October) and which state geographies (valleys, deserts, coastal) should expect new, significantly warmer temperatures. For help with the science and the projections, the group turned to UCSD’s Scripps Institute of Oceanography.

So what did the group find? Not surprisingly, the future is going be hot and ugly. More uncomfortably surprising, however, were some of the specific results.

By the 2030s, projections show that average annual temperatures will be up to 5 degrees higher, and extreme heat events will occur with markedly greater frequency. But what does that mean? A lot.

The workgroup’s model shows, for example, that Sacramento will have 44 extreme heat days annually by 2050, Fresno 46 and Bakersfield 48. That’s six weeks of super-heat piled on top of the already scorching days of mid-summer in middle California.

But the astounding projections concern the normally temperate coastal areas. Los Angeles, according to the projections, will have a mind-bending 78 extreme heat days by 2050, with San Diego just behind at 76. Think of it this way – almost three months a year of extreme hot weather, despite LA’s and San Diego’s coastal geography. Not far behind is another urban area, San Jose, with 71 extreme heat days. Extended unbearable heat is less than four decades away, and we’re building toward it now.

In fact, the former mild climate of these coastal enclaves could make their citizenry, unused to such high temperatures, even more vulnerable to heat-related illness than their inland brethren. The study points out that in a 2006 California extreme heat wave responsible for more than 650 deaths, it was coastal counties that experienced the biggest uptick in heat-related ER and hospital visits.

Part of this dire heat scenario for coastal areas can be traced to the Urban Heat Island effect, the study points out. With all the paved over and built-out land, there is little relief from heat-reflecting areas, which in daytime, EPA studies show, are 1-6 degrees warmer than less populated areas.

Enough said. The state’s planners are hard at it (there’s an entire page on CDPH’s website devoted to “Preventing and Preparing for Climate Change”), trying to battle the predicted heat war by encouraging green building standards with lighter-colored buildings and “cool” roofs, more parks and shade trees (will palms disappear from the California landscape?), even restoration of streams to produce more riparian –read shady – environments.

But they warn that many in the state’s population – particularly young children and the elderly – are at risk to suffer from heat-related illness, even death, as the state’s climate becomes inexorably warmer.

“Heat ranks as the deadliest of all natural hazards,” the study warns. We have 2006 to remind us.

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