Editorial | Piling on the heat
As neighbourhoods across Jamaica try to cope with the heat being piled on by gunmen, scientists are warning the country to brace itself for the challenges of heat of another kind caused by ever-rising temperatures.
The data indicate that since modern record-keeping was introduced in 1880, surface temperatures were highest in 2016. In fact, 15 of the 16 warmest days on record have occurred since 2000. Scientists predict that there will be no respite as the mercury will continue to rise way into the future. Extreme heat events are expected to become more common, more intense and longer-lasting as the global climate undergoes change.
Challenges anticipated from the latest global heat outlook were recently discussed with this newspaper by UWI Professor Michael Taylor, who referenced research by the Caribbean Institute of Meteorology and Hydrology. This research indicates that temperatures will become intense, creating recurrent heat waves in August and September. Elevated heat stress could affect small livestock, the study suggested.
"The science is pretty clear that we are moving into a new normal of hot," warned the UWI professor, who cited possible health risks to vulnerable groups.
He explained how this intense heat could affect productivity, agricultural output, and drive up energy usage as people depend more on air conditioning to keep cool.
The current overcrowding witnessed at Kingston Public Hospital, where dozens of victims of violence are being treated for gunshot or stab wounds, could be further exacerbated if there is an increase in patients suffering from fever, gastroenteritis, and other heat-related illnesses.
Another area of concern is the breeding of disease-bearing mosquitoes in what would be ideal conditions for reproduction. For example, the Aedes aegypti mosquito that carries the Zika, chikungunya and dengue fever viruses is believed to favour very hot conditions. Experience has shown how devastating these diseases can be.
So is anyone at the policymaking level listening to Professor Taylor? Nationally, what is being done to help people, particularly the vulnerable, prepare for, and deal with, rising temperatures? Not only should the relevant authorities take this warning seriously, they should take steps to prepare the infrastructure and systems to reduce people's vulnerability to heat. The same kind of attention given to planning for disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes and flooding now needs to be applied to heat events based on the warnings from the scientific community.
We submit that a Heat Emergency Response Plan should be considered and put in place so that the country will be able to mitigate the adverse effects of any heat event. This plan will enable protection of the vulnerable and to offer appropriate interventions where necessary.
At the very least, there should be a public-education campaign to raise awareness and provide tips for coping with extreme heat of the type being predicted. People should understand that prolonged exposure to heat can be harmful and that the added stress could aggravate pre-existing conditions such as heart disease.
The Meteorological Service should take the initiative to issue alerts in the event that this summer becomes hotter than usual. If people do not take steps to protect themselves, even small increases in temperature could have dire effects.