New Research Quantifies Just How Deadly Climate Change Is Making New York's Summer

Welcome to the trash sauna.

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May 19 2013, 11:24pm
Hose shot by Guian Bolisay

In 2010, heat killed approximately 55,000 people in Russia, dwarfing the total death toll of every American hurricane combined.  Daytime temperatures hit a cruising altitude of around 104°F and barely cooled at night; over 1 million hectares of land were swept by wildfires. The crop failure rate touched 25 percent, and total damages by the time the brutality let up came to $15 billion. In terms of spatial extent and deviation from normal, every temperature record for the region was shattered, beating even the 2003 European heat-wave, which claimed 70,000 lives. Both are extremes, but extremes that will become more likely as climate change makes its wrath felt.

Don’t ever doubt the power of a single-digit temperature variation. Hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and floods get most of the natural disaster credit, but heat will fuck you up, and, what’s more, it will do it slowly. So, keep this in mind when I say that a new study out from researchers at Columbia University's Earth Institute and published in today’s Nature Climate Change suggests that Manhattan is about to go into the oven for the indefinite future. By the next decade, heat deaths could rise by nearly a quarter on the island, while, by the 2080s, deaths could almost double. What’s more, most of the increase won’t come during the usual mid-summer months, but during May and September. In other words, say farewell to pleasant or at least tolerable shoulder seasons.

Percentage change (average over 16 models) in monthly
temperature-related deaths in the 2080s versus the 1980s
for one scenario

First, the bare numbers. Between 1901 and 2001, the average monthly temperature rose in Central Park by 3.5°F, leaping ahead of preindustrial local and global trends. 2012 was the island’s warmest year on record, while each of the past three years has seen temps hitting 100°F. Future projections show an increase of between 3.3 and 4.2°F by the 2050s and 4.3 and 7.1°F by the 2080s. Just imagine Times Square after two weeks of 115°F weather, when the buildings and sidewalks have soaked up some much heat that even the deepest subway tunnel radiates it like a sauna filled with trash and dead rats.

Which brings us to the death part. The researchers, led by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Tiantian Li, who did his postdoc work at Columbia, took projections from 16 different global climate models and rescaled them down to Manhattan. They used two different backdrops, one in which population growth slows and efforts are made to curb greenhouse gases, and a worst-case in which population rises at current rates and little effort is made to quell GHGs. Compared to now, more people die in either situation, but, in the worst-case scenario, the estimated yearly death toll tops 1,000 people. This is extrapolating from 1980s death rates in the 300s.

Senior author Patrick Kinney notes that there is some hope for the island that’s not reflected in the study. Mainly, Manhattan is a global leader in mitigation strategies, like planting trees, using reflective surfaces on buildings, and the opening of public air-conditioning centers. In fact, while the area has gotten warmer over the past century, overall heat-related deaths have gone down, thanks to the development of individual air conditioning. "I think this points to the need for cities to look for ways to make themselves and their people more resilient to heat," Kinney says. Trees aren’t exactly going to bring the same 30 degree drop as your wall unit, but at a municipal scale, it doesn’t take all that much to make a big, life-saving impact.   

Reach this writer at michaelb@motherboard.tv.