Melting Point: Exploring the Science and Consequences of Heatwaves

 

What is a Heatwave?

A heatwave is a prolonged period of abnormally high temperatures. They usually occur
between March and June and in some rare cases, they extend till July. Heatwaves occur
mostly during summer in North-Western parts of India. Heatwaves can cause problems
ranging from physiological stress to even death. Heatwaves are becoming even more
frequent with time due to global warming and climate change. They are also becoming
more intense with each passing year and breaking temperature records. Heatwaves are
taking more and more casualties with time. A heatwave is declared if the maximum
temperature of a station reaches at least 40 degrees Celcius or more for Plains and at least
30 degrees Celcius or more for Hilly regions. For coastal areas when the maximum
temperature departure is 4.5 degrees Celcius or more from normal, a Heat Wave may be
declared if the actual maximum temperature is 37 degrees Celcius or more.
According to reports, heat waves are predicted to get more severe and last much longer as
time progresses.

Impact of the Heatwaves on Health

Heatwaves have a huge impact on the health of people. Heatwaves can lead to
dehydration, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and/or heat stroke.

Conditions that one is at risk for due to a heatwave

Conditions that one is at risk for due to a heatwave

Symptoms to look out for

Heat Cramps

  • Oedema (swelling) 

  • Syncope (Fainting) 

  • Generally accompanied by fever below 39°C i.e.102°F.

Heat Exhaustion

  • Fatigue 

  • Weakness 

  • Dizziness 

  • Headache

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting 

  • Muscle cramps

  • Sweating.

Heat Stroke

  • Body temperatures of 40°C i.e. 104°F or more 

  • Delirium 

  • Seizures, or coma. (This is a potentially fatal condition)




How Do You Help Someone Suffering Due to a Heatwave?

● Move the person to a cool place under the shade.
● Give them water or a rehydrating drink (if the person is still conscious)
● Fan the person.
● If the symptoms get worse, are long-lasting or the person is unconscious consult a
doctor.
● Do not give them alcohol, caffeine, or any aerated drink.
● Cool the person by putting a cool wet cloth on his/her face/body.
● Loosen their clothes for better ventilation.

The Impact of Heatwaves on Mental Health

Heatwaves can have an impact on mental health as well. Psychiatrists have noticed an
increase in suicide rates, anger and irritability. An increase in heat has been linked
globally to the deterioration of the mental health of people. Children, adolescents and
people with pre-existing mental challenges are more susceptible to a deterioration of their
mental health due to heat. The COVID-19 pandemic caused mass trauma, and the
increase in heat waves has only made the mental health of people worse. The cause for

increased mental health problems due to the heat can be attributed to consistent or
constant exposure to something that is inconducive- like heat.
Heat waves have been linked to an increase in social volatility. Precipitation increases the
chances of irritability and anger, thereby increasing the risk of conflict. Heatwaves have
led to people feeling alone, bleak, lonely and trapped. Heatwaves affect marginalised
communities the most because they are at risk of losing their houses or family members
due to repeated flooding. Socio-economically deprived communities always get the worst
of any crisis. However, as time passes, humanity will find itself exacerbated from
inequalities as climate change will destroy everything we hold dear if we do not take
action now. “The climate and ecological emergency is a mental health emergency. Our
mental health is entwined with the health of our natural world,” Dr. Adrian James,
president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in the U.K., warned.

Why are Heatwaves a Cause for Concern?

Despite all efforts to increase resources, resources will always increase arithmetically, but
the population grows geometrically, which puts more and more strain on resources with
time. This leads to deforestation and increased use of transport which emits harmful
greenhouse gas-containing fumes. The increased use of concrete and construction of
more buildings traps the heat in the ground and stops it from rising to the surface, further
warming the air. Heatwaves put a larger strain on water, energy and transport. It leads to
blackouts. Crops get damaged due to the unseasonal heat leading to a shortage of food
and a subsequent rise in their prices.

Heatwaves can have a serious impact on society by increasing mortality rates. An
increased strain on critical systems like drinking water and electricity systems could lead
to them malfunctioning due to not being able to keep up with the demand.
For India, the world’s poorest super-emitter, adapting to a hotter Earth is as urgent a task
as cutting planet-warming emissions. A recent study showed a 62% rise in heat-related
deaths in the last 20 years. An official assessment of climate change published in 2020
showed that the frequency and intensity of droughts and cyclones had significantly
increased in the last six decades. The number of days of intense rainfall and the pace at
which sea levels are rising has more than doubled over that period. The disasters underscore 
how countries like India, which are responsible for relatively little greenhouse
gases accumulated in the atmosphere, often bear the brunt of climate impacts.

-Zahra Mithiborwala

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