Dangerous summer heat in Columbus and Ohio is expected to worsen with climate change

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) – It’s not the heat or the humidity. It is the combination of the two that will make the Columbus summers suffocating, dangerous, and obscure as our planet heats up in the decades to come.

With the heat index topping 100 degrees Fahrenheit last week, this is roughly the hottest Columbus there is. The city currently sees about three weeks a year with a heat index of 90 when the National Weather Service calls for “extreme caution”.

But the occasional extreme heat nuisance – currently limited to the capital’s dog days in the summer – is expected to increase dramatically in the coming years, according to a key report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit scientific advocacy group.

The 2019 report assumes that Columbus’ 19 days a year a heat index of 90+ increases to 65 days to the middle of the century and 97 days to the end of the century.

“This is what scientists have been talking about all along, and it’s heartbreaking,” said Rachel Licker, UCS chief climate scientist, author of the Wisconsin-based report. “That’s not stuff we’re used to in the Midwest.”

The heat index measures how the outside conditions feel by taking temperature and humidity into account. Our bodies sweat to fight hot temperatures, but moisture can prevent sweat from evaporating.

Heat index chart via the National Weather Service

According to the NWS’s heat index table above, a 90 degree day at 60% humidity feels like 100 degrees, and a 100 degree day at the same humidity would feel like 129 degrees.

“When it’s more humid, it’s harder for your body to cool itself efficiently,” Licker said. And in children, the elderly, and people with respiratory and heart diseases, heat illness is more likely to develop.

Extreme hot days that increase exponentially without any action

While the heat indices are mostly bearable for Ohioans in the 1990s, extremely hot days will skyrocket. Columbus is currently seeing 1 day a year where the heat index reaches 100 degrees. By the middle of the century (2036-2065), UCS predicts this to be on 24 days and until the end of the century (2070-2099) until 52 days.

A similar future is forecast nationwide. If current emissions trends continue through the end of the century, Cleveland will live 35 days a year with a heat index above 100; Toledo will see 49 days; Dayton 57 days; and Cincinnati 66 days.

“We’re talking about Ohio basically spending the entire summer in heat index conditions above 100 degrees Fahrenheit or a few weeks,” Licker said. “So there are so many benefits to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Looking ahead, the projected rise in average temperatures in Ohio will make summer feel more like the hot and humid areas inland of the Gulf of Mexico if current CO2 emissions persist.

“What will the climate in central Ohio be like in 60, 70 years? Something much more in the direction of Central Louisiana, central mississippi or Central Alabama“Said Sean Sublette, a meteorologist with the Climate Central research group.

His organization predicted a worst-case scenario in 2014 in which the average summer temperature of Columbus will rise from just over 83 degrees by 2100 to almost 95 degrees, comparable to how summer feels now on the southern border of Texas.

But as US coal consumption declines, that forecast has shifted slightly to conditions in the deep south. Still muggy, but better.

“There is a hint of progress,” Sublette said, noting that wind and sun are now the cheapest forms of energy in America.

The summer in Ohio’s capital is already heating up. Research by Climate Central shows that Columbus has on average longest streak in a year with 85-plus-degree days more than doubled from 1970 to 2020.

2021 Columbus heat streaks Climate Central(Graphic via climate control center)

“Remember, Columbus will eventually become Lexington, eventually Nashville, and eventually Huntsville,” Sublette said. “And then, oh my god, next it’s like Birmingham.”

There is hope despite the heat

UCS’s forecast is that the US and the world will remain on their current emissions path through the end of the century, in which transportation and power generation rely largely on fossil fuels such as oil, coal and natural gas.

But the report also reveals two scenarios that show Ohio isn’t doomed to have unbearable summers just yet.

Action diagram of Union of Concerned Scientists warming scenariosThe growth or decrease in global emissions of heat inclusions over the coming decades will determine how much more frequent extreme heat events will be in the United States. In this analysis, three scenarios were examined: “no action”, “slow action” and “quick action” to reduce global emissions. SOURCES: LE QUÉRÉ ET AL. 2015; IIASA 2009. (Diagram on Killer Heat in the United States Report of the Union of Concerned Scientists, 2019)

with “Slow action” Due to climate change, carbon emissions begin to decline in the middle of the century and the planet is warming to just 2.4 degrees Celsius by 2100, compared to 4.3 degrees without action.

And with “Quick action”, The most hopeful scenario is that global warming is limited to the Paris Agreement target of 2 degrees Celsius, even though humans have already warmed the earth by 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit), according to the latest United Nations climate report.

“Because of the choices we have made, there is already some climate change,” said Licker, reflected in the more intense heat waves and forest fires of last summer. “But it’s about maintaining a climate that is at least somewhat in line with the current climate and giving us a chance to actually adapt.”

“And if we were to talk about a place like Columbus that has 52 days over 100 against you,” she continued, “it would require such an enormous amount of adaptation, investment and lifestyle changes.”

How to fight climate change

Given the possibility that Ohio’s mild summers could resemble those of the deep south by 2070, what can be done?

Climate Central does not advocate specific guidelines, but Sublette put the goal of mankind simply: “We have to find a way to generate electricity that does not set carbon on fire.”

Broadly speaking, this includes generating electricity from the sun, wind, hydropower and other renewable resources, as well as the transition to electric vehicles for public and private transportation.

The US House of Representatives is currently considering a $ 1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that would make some headway. It includes $ 15 billion for electric vehicle infrastructure, $ 40 billion for greener public transportation, and more than $ 70 billion for upgrading the national grid.

But no matter how the CO2 emissions are reduced, Sublette said, the sooner the better.

“How much warmer we really get depends on how we generate energy over the next 10, 20 or 30 years,” he said. “That will go a long way in determining what it will be like at the end of the century.”

And that includes, according to Licker, holding responsibilities accountable through votes and calls for action.

“We need systemic change,” she said.

When it comes to individual action on climate change, Sublette said: “Do the little things”. These include planting trees, composting food waste, limiting plastic use, and – if you have the means – installing solar panels or driving a hybrid or electric car.

“It’s not like we’re getting to a point where it doesn’t matter any more to take action,” Licker said. “Every fraction of a degree is important. That means, the more we warm the earth, the worse it gets. “

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