Jared Ulmer is the Climate & Health Program Manager at the Vermont Department of Health.
When we established Vermont’s Climate & Health Program in 2012, the visibility, public discussion, and ongoing concern about flooding, tickborne diseases, and cyanobacteria blooms (sometimes referred to as blue-green algae blooms) had already helped raise awareness about climate change and the need for action. It was relatively easy for us to work with partners on outreach, monitoring, and other adaptation strategies related to these topics. People understood these challenges.
What was more difficult was to make use of these partnerships and general public awareness to prepare for a climate-related impact that seems almost unthinkable in northern New England: being too hot.
Unexpected Health Threats from Climate Change
The warm season in Vermont is usually short and sweet, frost-free for only five months with summer average highs in the upper 70s to low 80s. Therein also
lies the problem – when it gets hot here, we’re not used to it, and many homes and businesses are not equipped with air conditioning given the infrequent need.
We analyzed Vermont data and found that heat-related health impacts measurably increase when temperatures reach about 87°F. Vermont typically only reaches 87°F about six times per year, but our climate projections suggest that frequency will increase to as many as 30 times per year by the end of the century.
Our climate & health partners in Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and Maine had data telling a similar story, and we were all concerned that the National Weather Service (NWS) threshold for issuing heat advisories in our region was too high. Advisories were rarely issued, and there was little public recognition of our unique vulnerability to hot weather. We collectively shared this information with our NWS partners throughout the northeast, who agreed to lower the heat advisory threshold for our region. This engagement fostered closer collaboration with our local NWS office, which is essential for reaching a broad audience with heat safety messaging.
Next, we worked on raising awareness about heat risks and safety tips with health and human services partners and the general public through one-on-one conversations, presentations at meetings and conferences, handouts, our website, social media, and interviews. There was eventually enough momentum to host a 30-person “Heat Summit” in 2017, where we identified initial actions needed to collectively improve our hot weather outreach and emergency response capabilities.
Identifying Challenges When Our First Heat Emergency Hit
All this groundwork turned out to be very timely, as Vermont experienced one of its worst heat waves on record in 2018. High temperatures stayed above 93°F in Burlington for six consecutive days in early July, with the heat index topping 100°F for three of those days. We were able to tap into our network of partners to help distribute heat safety tips and guidance for service providers that care for home-bound older adults, people with health conditions worsened by heat, and other vulnerable populations. There was widespread media coverage echoing our talking points, resulting in more visits to our heat safety website during the heat wave than we typically see in an entire year.
Despite our success with partnerships and outreach, four Vermonters died and about 100 went to the emergency room due to heat-related conditions, many of which could be prevented with a more robust heat response system. In particular, two critical issues emerged.
First, Vermont dedicates many resources to warming centers and home heating assistance, but we don’t yet have similar resources available for cooling assistance. Second, social isolation is a critical challenge to respond to heat, as many high-risk individuals live alone and are unwilling or unable to travel to a cooler location. Underpinning both of these challenges, we also lack a formal response plan to clearly identify roles, responsibilities, and triggers for action during a heat emergency.
Finding new resources to support these strategies is a major challenge, but we now have a committed network of partners that recognize and can help to address these deficiencies. The ability to reference the health impacts from a recent, specific heat wave provides additional motivation. This fall, we established a “Hot Weather Workgroup” consisting of representatives from emergency management, hospital preparedness, human services, occupational safety, schools, and other sectors. We’re optimistic that after years of foundation building, this group will be able to transform ideas into actions.
Finding Long-Term Solutions for Heat, Health and Climate
In addition to preparing for heat emergencies, we’re working with partners on several long-term initiatives to reduce hot weather impacts while providing additional health benefits and helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Energy-Saving Trees is an Arbor Day Foundation program delivered in Vermont by the Urban and Community Forestry Program. We began sponsoring this program in 2017 and have targeted it to urban communities at relatively high risk for heat impacts according to our Heat Vulnerability Index. The goal is to help residents plant shade trees in locations that will help keep their home cooler, reduce energy usage, store carbon, and provide other air and water quality benefits. We have provided nearly 1000 trees to five different communities so far.
We also work with home weatherization and energy efficiency partners to support their initiatives, which are primarily focused on reducing energy usage and costs for low-to-moderate-income households, but which also reduce heat and cold stress, improve indoor air quality, and result in other physical and mental health benefits. Our main role is to help raise awareness about the health benefits, though we’re exploring options to provide add-on services that would make it easier and cheaper for clients to keep their homes cool.
Partners are Critical to Progress on Unexpected Health Threats
Our experience in Vermont preparing for the seemingly unthinkable challenges posed by climate change reinforced for us about the critical role of partnerships. Building a strong foundation is hard work and not very glamorous, but necessary for achieving larger successes. It is unlikely that our preparedness strategies would have gained much traction if we had moved straight to action on our own several years ago. Moving slow and steady to raise awareness and build trust has produced a network of partners to sharpen our focus, amplify our efforts, and take on responsibilities. We hope 2020 brings us a sunny and warm (but not hot!) summer, but if it doesn’t, we’re confident that we and our partners will be better prepared for it.
Suggested citation: Ulmer, Jared. “Preparing for Hot Weather in a Cold State ” Health and Climate Solutions Blog: George Mason University. January 24, 2019.