Heat May Be Killing More Americans Than We Thought

On dogs, the true danger to rivers and hopes for Ethiopian grain, in the latest roundup of climate change news you should know about

Ruth Schuster
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Record heat. A fisherman casts into the surf Tuesday, May 5, 2020, in Huntington Beach, California after a heat wave.
Record heat. A fisherman casts into the surf Tuesday, May 5, 2020, in Huntington Beach, California after a heat wave.Credit: Chris Carlson,AP
Ruth Schuster

Heat evidently deadly at lower temperatures than thought

How many Americans are actually dying of heat? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates the figure at about 600 a year, but a study published in the journal Environmental Epidemiology estimates the average at 5,600 people a year – and that’s between 1997 and 2006, since when the average temperature has risen. Worryingly for the heat-averse, most of these deaths were from only moderately hot weather compared with the local norm, while about 40 percent (2,300 deaths) were from “extremely hot weather.”

Fat, flat-faced dogs likelier to get heatstroke

Don’t get Haaretz started on pet dog genetics: the poor things have been overbred to the point that some variants are barely viable any more, especially in the heat. And it could have been expected. “Mixed breed dogs were more likely to carry a common recessive disease, whereas purebreds were more likely to be genetically affected with one, providing DNA-based evidence for hybrid vigor,” warns a 2019 paper in PLOS One.

The more mixed the mutt, the better its chances of robustness
The more mixed the mutt, the better its chances of robustnessCredit: AP

Now, a new paper in the latest edition of Scientific Reports warns that old dogs, fat dogs and dogs with flat faces – such as pugs and bulldogs – are more prone to heatstroke, based on the medical records of nearly a million U.K. dogs. In other words, they’re just like us. Also, purebreds had 1.86 times higher odds of heat-related illness than mutts, the doctors observed. They suggest that breeders consider respiratory function and a propensity to obesity among their mating rationales.

We can take the cold…

In Europe, summer temperatures keep breaking records; heat waves are becoming more frequent and protracted. But the European Environment Agency points out that the cold spots are killers, too. However, risk was found to escalate fast and non-linearly at high temperatures; deaths from extreme heat are roughly as frequent as deaths from moderate heat.

At the other end of the spectrum, deaths from extreme cold are negligible compared with those caused by moderate cold. At the end of the day, we seem more tolerant to intensification of cold than to mounting heat – a problem in a warming world.

Ocean rise is a risk. Subsidence is a bigger risk

Human activity is outpacing climate change as a stressor of major river systems, warns the University of Illinois in the journal One Earth. Take the mighty Mekong in southeast Asia, former home to now functionally extinct giant catfish.

Living on the Mekong Delta
Living on the Mekong deltaCredit: Evocation Images / Shutterstock

Groundwater extraction is causing subsidence of the delta, and it isn’t being replenished as in prehistoric times by sediment from upstream. This is why? Because the sediment is being trapped behind upstream dams, and sand is being mined for construction from the delta floor. “The scale of the effects of sediment starvation and subsidence in driving increased flood risk is currently far greater than sea-level rise generated by global climate change,” states Urbana-Champaign geology and geography professor Jim Best, who warns of a major tipping point in the next 10 to 20 years.

Mekong giant catfish
Mekong giant catfishCredit: AP

Relying on corporate goodwill to save us?

In that same paper, the team notes that politics alone can devastate river systems. Currently in the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic is being used as an excuse to avoid environmental enforcement. Companies can pollute land, sea and air, and escape penalty because of the pandemic. “The Trump administration has suspended the enforcement of environmental legislation,” Lifegate explains. Why? “Industries may encounter difficulties in abiding by certain prescriptions due to the coronavirus emergency,” the Environmental Protection Agency claims. So companies don’t have to monitor and report their polluting ways, and there’s no time limit on this. The EPA says it asked companies to “act in a responsible manner.” OK then.

Hydroelectric power has its points, until drought arrives

Hydropower is classified as a renewable energy – though it’s heatedly debated (if you’ll excuse the expression) how green it is. They’re better than natgas-fueled power plants, but dammed water reservoirs release more methane than had been thought, for one thing. Then there’s the problem of drought. In California, where hydro supplies 13 percent of the grid, a study on the effect of the disastrous drought in 2012-2016 found that hydro’s contribution fell to 6 percent; the cost of power production shot up, and so did emissions. Meanwhile, the temperature continued to rise, as it has been doing, and Californians wanted more power for air-conditioning – so the actual financial suffering by the power companies depended on the price of natural gas, scientists report in Environmental Research Letters. It bears adding that their pain could be passed on to consumers.

All of which boils down into this: increasing use of renewable energy reduces emissions overall, but drought years then jack up emissions again because the companies hurry back to fossil fuels.

It’s a teff world

Meanwhile, science has analyzed the genetics of teff, an indigenous Ethiopian grain that’s high in protein and free of gluten. Without getting into the gluten-free fad and how inappropriate it is for the gluten-tolerant among us, teff turns out to have immense genetic diversity. That suggests it will cope well with climate change, scientists suggest in the journal of Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. In other words, it is likely to have the genetic capacity to adapt to drought and heat – and this is a good thing because Ethiopia is projected to be heading for drought and dramatic increase in heat. So either teff adapts or it will only survive on mountaintops.

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