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None Like it That Hot

In a bit of bad news, it turns out that scientists have been miscalculating the heat index, or how hot it feels, amid deadly heatwaves.

May 31, 2024
by Glen Martin
LORIE SHAULL/FLICKR

It may be hot, the old saw goes, but at least it’s a dry heat. That’s not much consolation in an era of accelerating climate change.

As reported in Berkeley News, a recent study by David Romps, a Berkeley professor of earth and planetary science, found that the heat index (how hot it feels) is increasing about three times faster than the thermometer would suggest.

Heat index is a measure of apparent temperature that combines temperature and humidity to better capture the stress people actually experience when the mercury climbs. But using data collected from Texas in the summer of 2023, Romps found that even the heat index may be unduly conservative.

Indeed, an earlier paper Romps coauthored with graduate student Yi-Chuan Lu, M.A. ’17, Ph.D. ’23, concluded that the calculations used by the National Weather Service understate the apparent temperature during intense heat waves by as much as 20 degrees F. This isn’t simply a matter of getting some numbers wrong. There can be deadly consequences, as people miscalculate their chances of suffering life-threatening heat stroke.

In 2023, Phoenix and encompassing Maricopa County logged 50 percent more heat-associated deaths than were reported in 2022, climbing from 425 to 645. According to the AP, 71 percent of those deaths occurred during an excessive heat warning declared by the National Weather Service.

What to do? Other than embracing pools, air conditioners, icy drinks, and cold compresses, Romps suggests we get more serious about cutting carbon.

“I mean, the obvious thing to do is cease additional warming, because this is not going to get better unless we stop burning fossil fuels,” he told Berkeley News. “That’s message No. 1, without doubt. We have only one direction we can really be taking the planet’s average temperature, and that’s up. And that’s through additional burning of fossil fuels. So that’s gotta stop and stop fast.”

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