Study Warns of Surge in Heat-Related Deaths in New York City

by |June 29, 2016
Looking across the Ed Koch (Queensborough) Bridge, June 6, 2011. Photo: Chris Goldberg / Creative Commons

Looking across the Ed Koch (Queensborough) Bridge, June 6, 2011. Photo: Chris Goldberg / Creative Commons

A new study projects that as many as 3,331 people a year could be dying from the heat during New York City summers by 2080 as a result of the warming climate. That compares to 638 heat-related deaths on average between 2000 and 2006.

Efforts to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are fueling a hotter climate could substantially reduce the toll. So would efforts to help people adapt, such as more widespread use of air conditioning and the creation of public “cooling centers.” Broader efforts to cool the city, such as planting more trees and installing reflective roofs that absorb less heat, would also help.

Under their most optimistic scenario, the researchers projected just 167 heat-related deaths per year by the 2080s.

nyc-heat-deaths_312x218The study by researchers from Columbia and other institutions examined different scenarios of how the city’s population might grow and change, and how it might adapt to hotter temperatures, and considered 33 different models for how the climate might change. They considered historical data on heat-related deaths, as well as on patterns of adaptation. And they looked at two models for greenhouse gas emissions—one representing continued growth in emissions, and one in which emissions are gradually reduced. They came up with a range of projected heat-related deaths through the end of this century.

“We know climate change is creating more days of extreme heat, putting more people at risk for death in the coming decades,” said first author Elisaveta P. Petkova, project director at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. “Our study shows that many of these deaths can be averted by limiting greenhouse gas emissions and pursuing measures to help people adapt to high temperatures.”

While many studies have looked at the potential impact of climate change on heat-related mortality, this is the first to incorporate projected demographic changes—such as changes in overall population or an increase in a more vulnerable elderly population—and different scenarios for adaptation.

The many variables used to make the projections led to a large range of possible heat-related deaths, and the researchers note that some of the historical trends they used may not pan out in the future.

But they also note that if nothing is done to alter the climate trend, all of their projections show twice as many heat-related deaths than there would be if we make a concerted effort to control greenhouse gas emissions.

“This difference underlines the magnitude of the potential public health benefit associated with reducing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere,” they conclude.

The full study appears online in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, published with support from the National Institutes of Health. You can read more about it on the website of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University; at Scientific American and in the New York Times.

Co-authors include Jan K. Vink and Joe D. Francis from the Cornell University Program on Applied Demographics; Radley M. Horton and Daniel A. Bader from the Earth Institute’s Center for Climate Systems Research; Antonio Gasparrini from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine; and Patrick Kinney from the Mailman School of Public Health.

The research was supported by the Consortium for Climate Risk in the Urban Northeast, a grant from the National Institute for Environmental Health and a fellowship from Medical Research Council.

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