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Rudi Kiefer: Heat can take a heavy toll on a body
Rudi Kiefer
This year and in 2017, we saw plenty of scary footage about floods, tornadoes and hurricanes. While all these disasters tend to carry a deplorable death toll, there’s a bigger natural hazard that kills more people in the U.S. than all the other disasters combined.

It’s heat waves. We’re sure to see at least one this year. Heat waves often don’t get as much media attention as they deserve because there are no spectacular events, and heat doesn’t show well in photos and videos. The Center for Climate and Energy Solutions estimates heat waves cause 600 U.S. deaths annually.

Intense, long-lasting heat puts a heavy strain on the body’s cardiovascular system. Young people aren’t immune to this effect. In July 2016, a 12-year old boy died in 111-degree temperatures while hiking in Arizona.

The heat wave of 2012 became historic in dozens of states, including Georgia, when a “heat dome” formed over the Southern and Southeastern regions of the U.S. The independent think tank climatecentral.org reported 95 record-setting temperatures across our state during daytime, and 65 nighttime records.

A heat dome forms when high pressure stalls over the Southern states. The jet stream, which guides storms across the continent, is displaced far north into Canada. Frontal systems that could bring cooling, already rare in the Southeast during summer, don’t make it here at all. Even mild winds from the Atlantic or the Gulf are absent because high pressure over Georgia, Alabama and the states westward from there works like a roadblock.

In 2007, a summer heat wave drove temperatures in Raleigh, N.C., 104 degrees on Aug. 9-10. Atlanta and Athens reported 103-degree highs.

The climatic change in progress doesn’t always mean hot weather. It means we’ll see more extremes of hot as well as cold weather. At the individual level, it’s important to realize one’s limitations. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke occur suddenly and unexpectedly.

My personal experience has been that airflow loses its cooling effect at temperatures above 100 degrees. Riding a motorcycle in these conditions makes the body hotter instead of cooler. Physical work in the heat doesn’t make a person tired gradually. Instead, the collapse comes all of a sudden.

This coming summer, it’ll be important to know when to say “enough” and forgo or stop outdoor work and leisure activities.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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