Recently, city leaders have started to consider strategies for coping with the coming effects of climate change in Massachusetts. With the average annual temperature already on the rise — up 1.5 degrees over the past 100 years — Greater Boston communities are looking at ways to handle the effects an increased number of heat waves could have on our health.
BOSTON — Sam Lipson only has to walk a few yards from his office at the Cambridge Public Health Department to see the type of people and buildings most affected by a heat wave.
Across the street is a housing project built in the 1930s. Few windows have air conditioning. That makes it tough for people with low incomes to fight the heat.
One of the biggest dangers of higher temperatures is death from heat stroke or dehydration, especially among the elderly and children. In fact, heat waves kill more people in the United States than all other weather events combined. That's why most Greater Boston cities open cooling centers when the thermometer hits 90 degrees for several days in a row.
Boston will need more of those centers in the coming years, according to a recent report, which also suggests the city buy back-up generators for the centers. The report also recommends the city create a more comprehensive heat-wave plan.
Climate change projections vary, but under some models the Boston area could have as many as 60 days over 90 degrees each summer; by comparison, until 1990, there were fewer than 10. Massachusetts’ climate could become more like South Carolina’s by the end of the century.
"It’s more of a problem because we don’t think of ourselves and historically haven’t been a region with a very hot climate," said Martin Pillsbury, director of environmental planning at the Metropolitan Area Planning Council. He adds that we're not prepared for the problems that come with such a climate.
The Power Problem
The Metropolitan Area Planning Council represents 101 cities and towns in the Boston metro area. It's just beginning to create a climate change adaptation strategy for its members. The council is looking for advice from communities that experience high heat on a regular basis, such as Atlanta. But those cities also have more buildings with air conditioning, and their power systems were built to handle sweltering summers.
The same is not true for New England, and that concerns John Bolduc, an environmental planner for the city of Cambridge.
"We also need to be thinking about that kind of thing where these failures cascade," Bolduc said. "And what are the consequences of that going to be? And what is it that we can do to mitigate that?"
When it comes to ensuring energy supply, there's not a whole lot cities can do, says Carl Spector, the head of Boston’s Air Pollution Control Commission.
"Of course we don’t have any control over the grid, but we do have some control on the demand," Spector said. "Obviously the city has a lot of energy efficiency programs to reduce the demand all year round, but especially in summer."
In addition to endangering people, high heat changes precipitation and habitat. For instance, if temperatures change, different mosquitoes carrying different illnesses move in. They could bring diseases such as dengue fever, which is also known as breakbone fever because of the pain it causes. It's already shown up in South Florida and Texas.
Lipson, of the Cambridge Public Health Department, says he worries most about another mosquito-borne disease: yellow fever.
"When I think about disease, which could have an enormous public health impact, and I’m speculating," Lipson said. "I wonder if we’ll be revisited by yellow fever, since it’s demonstrated it can live in this climate."
There’s not much local health workers can do now to prevent this, but they are running complicated models that might predict whether new mosquito-borne diseases will come here.
Two things that are happening now and are expected to worsen with rising temperatures are ground-level ozone pollution and high pollen counts. The number of days with poor air quality is projected to quadruple if greenhouse gases aren’t curtailed.
And Lipson says people don’t understand how extended heat waves exacerbate problems.
"People don’t necessarily think of it as a multiplier effect," Lipson said. "They think if three days are bad, then six days are twice as bad, but that’s not true. It goes up at a steeper rate in terms of the public health impact."
It worsens asthma, allergies, some cardiovascular issues and other illnesses. As communities prepare for heat waves, Lipson says they should consider the old-fashioned responses as well.
"Think about who lives on your block, who lives in your building," he said. "Think about whether you feel they have a family or network of friends who will know to go and help them if they are in trouble. Those thoughts about people you may barely know may very well be the difference between their ability to survive under extreme circumstances and not."
Neighbors helping neighbors, because city planners are only just starting to strategize for a hotter future.
This program aired on August 22, 2012.