Magazine article The Nation's Health

Q&A with David Kitchen: Human Health at Risk from Extreme Weather Caused by Climate Change: Impacts of Extreme Weather on Environmental, Public Health

Magazine article The Nation's Health

Q&A with David Kitchen: Human Health at Risk from Extreme Weather Caused by Climate Change: Impacts of Extreme Weather on Environmental, Public Health

Article excerpt

With climate change comes the threat of more extreme weather events such as intense flooding, severe droughts, strong hurricanes and devastating wildfires--public health emergencies that can destroy communities and negatively impact physical and mental health. The Nation's Health spoke to David Kitchen, PhD, associate professor of continuing studies at the University of Richmond and author of "Global Climate Change: Turning Knowledge Into Action," about what extreme weather events mean for environmental and public health, and how people will be forced to adapt to an increase in such crises.

In what ways does climate change lead to extreme weather events?

These events--floods, major storms, hurricanes, droughts, are natural events and so they do occur naturally. We're looking at the increases in the frequency of certain events or the slow changes in the times of the seasons, which indicate that the climate is changing.

We tend to focus on the atmosphere because we live in it, but the oceans are in fact absorbing so much more energy than the atmosphere. They're so big and water absorbs so much energy. The whole earth climate system is absorbing so much more energy from the sun than it has before.

It's like a big climate engine, basically, driving the wind, driving the weather we experience every day, driving the rainfall, driving the droughts. It's not surprising to see an increase in the frequency of extreme events when we're adding more energy to the earth climate system.

In what ways will climate-driven extreme weather impact human health?

The temperature of the U.S. has increased by somewhere between 1.3 to 1.9 degrees over the last century or so. And this is another confusion for a lot of people. They think that a small rise in temperature of a few degrees Fahrenheit, how can that be important, since on any one day they might experience a temperature change from, say, over the summer, 70 something at night to over 100 during the day.

A way that I talk to my students about this is to think of your own body. The surface of your body can change temperature through the course of any one day from one freezing on a cold day, to really sweaty and hot on a hot day. But if your core body temperature changes more than a few degrees, you get pretty sick ... The total amount of energy is increasing so that our global temperature increases by just a few degrees, and the earth then becomes quite sick.

Temperature itself, is a risk ... especially in some parts of our country and with the elderly. There has been an increase in a number of people suffering illness from high temperatures. There are vulnerable groups in society who will be badly affected by temperature change.

With so much of this energy accumulating and worsening as climate change becomes more of a threat, what is going to be the effect on our planet in decades to come?

We are seeing a significant increase in the number of severe storms across the United States. We're talking about the most damaging winds, which are associated with the severe storms and do cause damage. But what's causing even more damage is the intensity of rainfall.

And the sea-level rise, of course, is a major (concern) as well. Sea level is rising and it's likely to continue rising (by) more than a few millimeters a year. Those who will be most affected are those who live in cities on the coast. Of course, we have 90 coastal cities in the U.S.

And as this happens more and more, we will see more and more of these events where storm surges (cause) a lot of damage. It's long before the city is flooded. The expense of trying to deal with (the) increasing severity of storm surges is going to be messy.

Up until this year we've seen a significant decrease in the amount of snowpack, which could lead to droughts in the summer. We've seen some severe droughts in Oregon and somewhat in California, particularly, for the last number of years. …

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