Countries to consider naming convention for heatwaves modeled after hurricanes

Heat waves will most likely become increasingly frequent, particularly in urban centers. PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Could assigning names to heat waves, the way officials do for hurricanes and tropical storms, help protect people from the warming climate?

It's one of the measures Greece is considering after facing weeks of scorching temperatures and wildfires this month. Some experts in Britain, the United States and other countries have also pushed for giving human names to heat waves and categorizing them based on their severity, on the grounds that designating names could help to raise awareness about the dangers of extreme heat.

Even though tropical cyclones typically garner more headlines, especially in the United States, heat waves can be deadlier.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that an average of 658 people were killed in the United States each year by extreme heat in the decade leading up to 2009, but experts say the number is much higher because death from heat strokes are often not categorized as such. An investigation by The New York Times showed that during the heat wave in the Pacific Northwest in late June, more than 600 people died than would have been typical in Oregon and Washington.

Kathy Baughman McLeod, director of the Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center, which advises on climate change, migration and security challenges, supports the idea of assigning names and categories to heat waves so that people can be made more aware of the threats they pose and can prepare.

Heat waves are "quietly, perniciously killing more people than any other climate-driven hazard," she said. "If it has a category and a name, you should pay attention."

Her organization is a member of the Extreme Heat Resilience Alliance, a group of experts in public health and climate science that is pushing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US agency that communicates weather and climate predictions to the public, to adopt the change.

Gina Eosco, a social scientist for NOAA who focuses on weather, said more research is needed on how naming affects risk perception and protective action. "We really don't have a lot of research on the efficacy of naming," she said.

It is difficult to say if people are more aware of the dangers of hurricanes because hurricanes are referred to by names - or because of the perceived severity of hurricanes. If people view heat waves as less severe than tropical systems, Eosco said, "then we may not see any effects with naming. This is a hypothesis, however, and research is needed to test this." Jasmine Blackwell, a spokesperson for the National Weather Service, said the organization has no plans to start naming heat waves, adding that the agency is developing a strategy to simplify how it conveys information about extreme heat events.

Heat waves will most likely become increasingly frequent, particularly in urban centers, where the risk tends to be higher. A major UN climate report released in August warned that nations have delayed curbing their fossil fuel emissions for so long that they can no longer stop global warming from intensifying over the next 30 years, leading to more frequent life-threatening heat waves and severe droughts.

Often heat waves pose the most danger to people in places known for cooler weather, where some homes, community centers and libraries do not have air conditioning. Aside from Greece, there have been deadly heat waves in recent months in places including the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, where record-breaking temperatures helped spread a wildfire that destroyed most of a small town in western Canada.

Storms - like Tropical Storm Henri, which this week brought power outages and record rain to the Northeast - have been given names for at least a few hundred years, with 16th-century cyclones in the Caribbean named after saints, such as Tropical Storm San Roque in 1508 and Hurricane San Francisco in 1526, according to a research paper published by NOAA.

The US National Hurricane Center officially started naming tropical storms in 1953 using only female names, and in 1978, it began including both men's and women's names on the Eastern North Pacific storm lists.

The use of short, easily remembered names instead of latitude-longitude identification methods can reduce confusion when there are several tropical storms happening at the same time, the National Hurricane Center said. For example, if one tropical storm is in the Gulf of Mexico, while another is in the Northeast, like Grace and Henri this week, using distinct names can reduce instances of people disregarding a warning, thinking it's in reference to a faraway storm.

Britain, too, names storms. Its national meteorological service, the Met Office, began the practice six years ago, saying that assigning names makes it easier to communicate urgent notices about inclement weather.

Experts say the same logic applies to heat waves, even if they may not be as straightforward to categorize, since a heat wave in one place may not constitute a heat wave in another. Athens' newly appointed chief heat officer, Eleni Myrivili, has said that scientists and officials were discussing ways to make it easier for policymakers to put preventive emergencies measures in places, including naming heat waves.

One drawback could be that if too many weather events have names, the message could get lost, said Suzana J. Camargo, an adjunct professor at Columbia University's Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. "I think it's a nice tool to have and if it's a big event, it makes sense, but I'm just worried if they start giving names to every little thing because it loses that power it has," she said.

Another issue is that the people who are most at risk, such as homeless people, older people living alone or people living in poverty, are often the ones who are the hardest to reach, said Richard C. Keller, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who focuses on the global history of the environment. For them, naming a heat wave may have limited, if any, impact, but it could raise overall awareness within a community and prompt people to check on those who are more vulnerable.

Still, Keller said that naming heat waves could be a critical step toward helping people to understand the true dangers of heat waves in a changing climate.

"This is maybe a kind of last-ditch effort to change the name of the game in terms of our understanding of the kinds of threats that extreme heat poses," he said, "especially as these events are becoming more frequent, more intense and have longer durations."

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