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Extreme drought, urban heat and the killer targeting Utah's vulnerable

A heavily paved area, which contributes to heat
islands, is pictured in South Salt Lake on Tuesday, July 27, 2021.

A heavily paved area, which contributes to heat islands, is pictured in South Salt Lake on Tuesday, July 27, 2021. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)



SALT LAKE CITY — The extreme heat of Utah's 2021 summer is exacting a price for residents who endure higher temperatures in urban settings and must deal with the consequences — which can be deadly.

In late July in American Fork, a young boy died from heat stroke after being left in a car for a couple of hours.

Early in the month, a homeless woman also succumbed to the heat on the streets of Salt Lake City.

Researchers say heat is the silent slayer that racks up the most weather-related deaths in the country; more than tornadoes, more than earthquakes, more than headline-grabbing hurricanes.

Unlike a tempest, it creeps in and stealthily claims its victims — as many as 12,000 people a year, according to the National Weather Service.

A recent briefing by SciLine, affiliated with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, detailed how the dangers of heat take on a new deadliness depending on where one lives.

Urban heat islands are between 3 to 5 degrees hotter than rural areas because the pavement, the people and the infrastructure trap and store all the heat.

Mitra Chandana, from Auburn University, said it would be a mistake to think only large cities like New York or Los Angeles suffer from these heat islands. Salt Lake City and even those with a couple hundred thousand people or less endure the effects.

"So it exists in all cities, every size, everywhere."

The summer of 2021 is already going down in the record books for its heat, even prompting Utah Gov. Spencer Cox to ask people to seek prayerful relief for the extremely dry conditions.

On the morning of July 13, the highest low, or minimum temperature, was logged at 84 degrees in Salt Lake City.

In St. George on July 10, it hit 117 degrees, which tied the all-time high for the entire state.

So far this year, there have been 18 days that hit triple digits. The other years where there have been long stretches of insufferable heat include: 1994, 21; 1960, 21; and 2013, 20.

"And we are at 18 and counting," said Jon Wilson, meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Salt Lake City.

Jaime Madrigano, a policy researcher with the Rand Corp., said people who work outdoors — such as those who are in construction or agriculture — are naturally more susceptible to the effects of extreme heat.

But the risk of heat stroke or heat exhaustion is more insidious than that.

"So a really important point to note is that heat is not an equal opportunity killer. And so while everyone can be at risk during a heat wave event, when temperatures get very hot, certain populations are more susceptible than others and more frequently impacted."

She pointed to age, underlying health conditions and medications that can affect a body's ability to cool itself.

A green roof, which can help mitigate heat islands, is
pictured on the Salt Lake City Public Library in Salt Lake City on
Tuesday, July 27, 2021.
A green roof, which can help mitigate heat islands, is pictured on the Salt Lake City Public Library in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 27, 2021. (Photo: Deseret News)

In addition, low-income populations have less capacity to adapt to a heat wave due to financial constraints for air conditioning, housing that retains more heat or even simply falling victim because of where they live in the city.

Researchers involved in this probe pointed to decades-old local planning policies that deliberately clustered industrial sites in a particular area and situated higher-density housing around it.

Those areas often feature less green space such as parks, nature trails or trees to offset the effects of the urban heat island. They were naturally locations that drew the attention of low-income people who couldn't afford the more ideal conditions, researchers said.

There are steps, however, that urban design planners and others can start to take to mitigate the effects of heat islands in general and extreme heat brought on by drought.

"So this is why when we think about infrastructure, it's really important to consider the growing burden of urban heat and its inequitable consequences because there are aspects of city design, energy infrastructure and housing conditions that are all very relevant to heat and health," Madrigano said. "And then finally, I wanted to end by making the point that extreme heat is a public health burden. And we often say that climate change is going to worsen it. But what I wanted to point out is that climate change has already made it worse."

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Amy Joi O'Donoghue

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