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Heat Waves on Tap for NY, Death Toll Could Be High

August 26, 2009

NEW YORK - More frequent and severe heat waves are on the way for summer months - and the new report that predicts them says they'll be brought on by global warming. The extreme weather also means more victims of heat stroke, asthma and other respiratory problems.

The study of 30 urban areas across the country warns the results will be especially serious for vulnerable populations in such places as Buffalo and New York City. Both have large concentrations of low-income households, many without access to air conditioning. In extreme heat, the result is environmental injustice, according to National Wildlife Federation Climate Scientist Amanda Staudt.

"Particularly people who are in poor health and the elderly often suffer the most. Heat waves can also exacerbate air pollution, so that puts children at risk, too. People of color are more likely to live in cities and more likely to be of lower incomes. They tend to live in the places where heat waves are the worst and have the least amount of resources to adapt."

Urban areas feel heat more acutely because asphalt, concrete and rooftops absorb and re-radiate it, causing city temperatures to climb as much as ten degrees higher than nearby rural areas.

At Columbia University's Center for Climate Research Systems, Associate Research Scientist Stuart Gaffin says just about every aspect of the "old way" cities were built contributes to the creation of excess heat. He advocates "green roofs" - growing vegetation on rooftops.

"It's, in my opinion, a pretty proven technology. I've been involved in many green roof installations. They're beautiful. They work!"

The study says this summer's cooler-than-average temperatures in the Northeast are due largely to natural climate oscillations, making it easy to lose sight of the longer-term warming trend. It also says heat waves already kill more people in the United States during a typical year than floods, tornadoes and earthquakes combined.

The report, "More Extreme Heat Waves: Global Warming's Wakeup Call," is online at www.nwf.org.

Mark Scheerer, Public News Service - NY