New federal website tackles the heat

MVC Tisbury commissioner Ben Robinson is skeptical about the website’s usefulness for Island decisionmakers.

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Excessive heat impacted Americans across the country this summer. — Eunki Seonwoo

On Tuesday, July 26, the Biden administration released heat.gov, a website aimed at the public and decisionmakers with “science-based information to understand and reduce the health risks of extreme heat,” through the interagency National Integrated Heat Health Information System. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), accompanied by members of other federal agencies, hosted a webinar on Tuesday for the press to further explain the website. 

Before getting into the details of the website, government officials provided context about how the heat has affected Americans. “It’s been really hard to escape the reality of an urgent climate crisis all across our country, and one way that the American people have been facing this down is in the form of extreme heat that is gripping over 70 million Americans, families coping with record-breaking temperatures into the three digits, really scorching across the country,” deputy White House national climate advisor Ali Zaidi said.

Zaidi underscored that the extreme heat is not only an “environmental phenomena but a public health threat.” He said extreme heat is the “No. 1 weather-related cause of death in the U.S.,” with an average of 67,000 people being sent to emergency rooms per year for heat-related ailments. Zaidi also said the extreme heat brings difficulties in other ways, such as droughts and making the fires in California harder to deal with. 

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo agreed that the heat has had a “massive negative effect” on various communities. CBS News reported that Boston declared a “heat emergency” earlier in July, and Reuters reported in June that at least 2,000 cattle died from the heat and humidity in Kansas.

“Extreme weather events are more frequent and more expensive and more lethal than they ever have been. It’s getting worse and worse and worse. More people die every year from heat and heat-related illnesses than any other type of weather event,” Raimondo said. “That’s on full display right now in our country and in Europe. So, obviously, it’s why we’re working so hard to prepare Americans and prevent these tragedies.”

Both Zaidi and Raimondo said heat.gov will help decisionmakers be better prepared against the extreme heat for governmental projects, and for individuals to decide whether to do certain activities, such as camping or farming. 

“The information on heat.gov is designed to help you. Concrete, actionable information at heat.gov to help you,” Raimondo said. She added that “given the scientific predictions, this summer, with its oppressive and widespread heatwaves, is likely to be one of the coolest summers of the rest of our lives.” 

“This is an important and timely tool that brings together data and resources on heat from across the federal government, making this information more accessible for the general public, decisionmakers, and public health professionals,” Patrick Breyesse, director of the Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, said. 

NOAA administrator Rick Spinrack said heat.gov helps to meet the increased demand from “city officials, the growing number of heat-resilience officers, doctors, nurses, first responders,” among others, for “federal support to underscore the complex and dangerous nature of extreme heat.”

Hunter Jones, who runs the heat.gov program, gave a short tour of the website’s various features, such as the interactive map, information about groups at risk from the heat, news, and more. 

How much will heat.gov help the Island? Martha’s Vineyard Commission member Ben Robinson, a climate change leader on the Island, said while the data and educational tools on the website can be helpful to individuals, they may not be as useful for decisionmakers. In particular, Robinson pointed out how the map shows the heat levels of only parts of Martha’s Vineyard. Aquinnah does not have any indication of how hot it is on the map.

“If you zoom in too closely, the data sort of starts to break down in that sense,” he said. “At the same time, it’s interesting to sort of see the whole country, and where it’s getting most affected.”

Robinson pointed out that the map gets its information from existing sources, such as the National Weather Service and NOAA. 

“Basically, they’re repurposing known information in a graphic form, and then adding all of these extra tools,” Robinson said. He said the website seems to have a higher focus on major urban areas, but there may “be a way to update the information so it’s accurate for local areas” like the Island.

The Island is also not a very hot environment, although there are still differences in temperature among the towns. For example, up-Island towns have more shade from trees to keep them cool compared to down-Island towns that have more concrete and asphalt. Robinson said downtown Vineyard Haven, which he describes as probably one of the hottest spots on the Island, used to be called “Torture Haven” when he was a child.

“Even when it’s hot like this, it’s tempered by the ocean,” Robinson said. “We don’t see above 90, really, on the Island. Maybe you get a summer day every once in a while that gets above 90, but for the most part, we stay cooler even when the mainland is absolutely cooking.”

Robinson said the risk of fires is higher for the Island’s dryer areas, compared to heat-related illnesses, referencing a recent fire that occurred on New York’s Long Island, which has a similar natural environment to the Vineyard. 

When asked what type of data is available for the Island, Robinson said historical temperature and climate data are primarily used. He said he is not aware of any organizations on the Island actively gathering this type of data, and they also use the National Weather Service and other sources for more recent data. However, this may change in the future. The northeastern U. S. is one of the fastest-warming areas, “even if it is starting from a lower [temperature] standpoint,” according to Robinson. 

“I think the realization that heat can be oppressive is kind of new to the Island. Definitely in the South, they understand it in a much more visceral way,” Robinson said. “We’re going to have to start understanding it that way as well, because this trend is exactly what people have been predicting [was] going to happen. Maybe, it’s happening faster than the predictions.” 

1 COMMENT

  1. I can’t wait to hear from the deniers about this one.
    The first one to mention that humans ( except Al Gore and John Kerry of course) have nothing to do with climate change wins a free ice cream cone at Ben & Bills ( $6 handling fee not included) — Sarcasm alert !

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