If you think the risk of heat-related illness at the Grand Canyon is high now, just wait a few years.
As extreme heat driven by climate change worsens, it will continue to increase the risk of heat-related illness such as heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke at Grand Canyon National Park, according to a National Park Service (NPS) study. In other words, it will get more dangerous to visit the park.
Researchers used data from 2004–2009 about visitation, heat-related illness, temperature, and humidity at the Grand Canyon to create a heat illness risk baseline. They then used climate projection models to predict how the risk of heat-related illness would change in the future under scenarios for a moderate increase and a high increase of climate change as a result of planet-warming pollution.
As you may expect, they found the rate of heat illness per 100,000 visitors increased across both scenarios during the 6-month peak visitation season. However, they also found that the rate of heat-related illnesses at Grand Canyon would increase by up to 137 percent by 2100 in the scenario modeling a high degree of climate change. In that projection, there would be up to 254 heat-related illnesses in the park each year, according to the study.
“Even under the best case scenarios, there’s a lot of future risk coming,” said Danielle Buttke, an NPS epidemiologist and one of the study’s authors, according to CNN. “This is truly a human health risk — every degree of warming matters, every amount of emitted carbon matters, and every action we can take to lessen our personal impact and advocate for climate action is going to save human lives.”
The Study’s Findings
National parks have already warmed twice as fast as the rest of the U.S. as a result of human-caused climate change, according to a previous study. This new study highlights the increasing risk of more frequent — and more intense — heat waves.
“Climate change is the greatest public health threat of the century,” Buttke told CNN. “Heat really does impact every aspect of our lives in some shape or form and that’s why climate change is less about changes to the environment than it is about changes to our daily lives and well-being.”
Indeed, heat is suspected to have been the primary cause of death for 16 people at Grand Canyon National Park since 2007, according to CNN’s analysis. More people have died at Grand Canyon due to heat-related illness than at any other U.S. national park.
The situation could actually be even more dangerous.
That’s because the research only considers cases of people who were treated for heat-related illness at Grand Canyon and not those who either didn’t seek treatment or were treated elsewhere. What’s more, the study’s projections could also be underestimated because current global warming and greenhouse gas emission rates closely mirror the worst case scenario used in the study.
“It’s possible these are underestimates because we’re already at the upper level of what our model projects,” Buttke told CNN. “What we’ve seen in the news in recent weeks and months with [the heatwave] this summer is that we’re already experiencing much faster and higher impacts than a lot of the models have predicted, so it’s very possible our study is underestimating future risk.”
It Pays To Prepare
Surprisingly, the new study found that the risk of heat-related illness was most pronounced in the cooler months during the peak season running from April to September. That shows the risk of not being able to anticipate and prepare for the unpredictable nature of extreme heat, Buttke said.
“I think that’s really the take home: The absolute temperature was less important than how expected that temperature was,” Buttke said. “It’s really about whether or not people expected high temperatures.”
Even though heat illness increased during the cooler months, Buttke notes that actions such as wearing proper clothing, drinking plenty of water, and avoiding the outdoors during the peak heat of the day all reduce the risk of heat-related illnesses.
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