Terry’s Take: Heat, the silent killer
Heat is one of the leading weather-related killers in the United States, resulting in hundreds of fatalities each year. In the disastrous heat wave of 1980, more than 1,250 people died. In the heat wave of 1995 more than 700 deaths in the Chicago area were attributed to heat, making this the deadliest weather event in Chicago history. In August 2003, a record heat wave in Europe claimed an estimated 50,000 lives.
North American summers are known for being hot. Most years at least 3 major heat waves impact the country. East of the Rockies, they tend to combine both high temperatures and high humidity, although some of the worst heat waves have been catastrophically dry.
When heat is expected to become a factor, the National Weather Service has several different products it issues as conditions warrant. Here they are:
- Excessive Heat Outlooks: are issued when the potential exists for an excessive heat event in the next 3-7 days. An Outlook provides information to those who need considerable lead time to prepare for the event, such as public utility staff, emergency managers and public health officials.
- Excessive Heat Watches: are issued when conditions are favorable for an excessive heat event in the next 24 to 72 hours. A Watch is used when the risk of a heat wave has increased but its occurrence and timing is still uncertain. A watch provides enough lead time so that those who need to prepare can do so, such as cities officials who have excessive heat event mitigation plans.
- Excessive Heat Warnings/Advisories: are issued when an excessive heat event is expected in the next 36 hours. These products are issued when an excessive heat event is occurring, is imminent, or has a very high probability of occurring. The warning is used for conditions posing a threat to life. An advisory is for less serious conditions that cause significant discomfort or inconvenience and, if caution is not taken, could lead to a threat to life.
NWS forecasters decide if and when to issue heat related products on a number of variables but primarily they are based on heat index values. The Heat Index, sometimes referred to as the apparent temperature is given in degrees fahrenheit. The Heat Index is a measure of how hot it really feels when relative humidity is factored in with the actual air temperature.
To find the Heat Index temperature, look at the heat index chart below. As an example, if the air temperature is 96°F and the relative humidity is 65%, the heat index–how hot it feels–is 121°F. The National Weather Service will initiate alert procedures when the Heat Index is expected to exceed 105°-110°F (depending on local climate) for at least 2 consecutive days.
IMPORTANT: Since heat index values were devised for shady, light wind conditions, exposure to full sunshine can increase heat index values by up to 15°F. Also, strong winds, particularly with very hot, dry air, can be extremely hazardous.
The heat index chart shaded zone above 105°F (orange or red) shows a level that may cause increasingly severe heat disorders with continued exposure or physical activity.