In the summer of 2003 I lived in Switzerland during one of the hottest months on record. In Europe a total of 35,000 people, mostly elderly, died due to the heat. The heat wave lasted about 3 weeks reaching temperatures over 100F (40C) affecting people who were completely unprepared to deal with this environmental change.

I remember the heat was mostly very humid due to thunderstorms every 3-4 days after which the rain water would evaporate. Being a grad student I took to working mostly during the afternoon, evening, and night, going to sleep around 3am, finally being able to sleep around 5am during the coolest part and then waking up like in an oven around 11am. After a couple of weeks people were going slightly crazy. There was no escape.

I remember finding occasional relief by hanging out near the freezer section of the supermarket, the air conditioned console in the computer room and the basement where I did my laundry, but you could only do your laundry for so long.

Mind you, in Europe we do not have ubiquitous access to A/C. Most people are not used to dealing with this and thus we had a situation similar to what North America would look like with a 3 week long brown out which just might happen when everyone starts gunning their A/Cs during an extra warm period.

People were simply not adapted and did not know how to handle the heat. Heat puts a substantial demand on the circulatory system. The heart must work much harder. If it can’t then people die.

The 2003 weather extreme has been attributed to global warming. As the energy balance keeps getting shifted towards higher thermal potentials as more radiation energy gets stored in the planet’s weather systems making them more extreme. We are going to see more such events as the planet keeps heating. It is best to prepare for them by not delaying personal adaptation however tempting it may be to remain comfortable in the short run.

  • Most importantly, be sure that your circulatory system can handle it. Get in sufficiently good shape that you can move around outside when the temperature is 100F+. If you can run for half an hour in 100F without doubling over, you have a much better chance of surviving sitting for three weeks in 100F. It is not wise to stake your life on access to A/C.
  • Heat tolerance can be developed by gradually building up to it. This will increase the number of sweat glands (remember to drink a lot of water). Walking from A/C to A/C is counter-effective. Set an upper limit to the A/C around 80F. Then gradually increase it.
  • Open windows to increase the draft. Get a fan if you can afford it. You can increase the effectiveness of the fan by evaporating water off of your skin.
  • Work slowly. Do not overheat. It is much harder to recover from a bad situation than it is to prevent it.
  • Sleep naked, no sheets. If that is not enough, put water on the mattress before going to bed. This will cool it further. Even better: Sleep outside (balcony, roof), if you can.
  • Change your hours. Do not work during the hottest hours of the day. There is a reason for the siesta. Work during night. Sleep during (most of) the day.

In the coming decades, I would consider these coping skills essential and part of the “health plan” especially without access to A/C which is likely going to be more expensive (declining energy reserves). Prescient people may want to leave the south western US and southern Europe entirely and move north.

Originally posted 2009-02-02 21:40:18.