Climate Change Means Heat Waves Are Killing More People Than Ever

So sayeth the Center for Disease Control.

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Jun 10 2013, 1:30pm
People sleeping outside during a heat wave in 1936. Minnesota Historical Society

Heat waves may win the fewest headlines, but they're actually one of the deadliest disasters we face. 

“No one should die from a heat wave, but every year on average, extreme heat causes 658 deaths in the United States," Robin Ikeda, the director of the National Center for Environmental health, said. She added that that's "more than tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and lightning combined.” 

The Center for Disease Control released its Morbidity and Mortality report, which found that 7,233 heat-related deaths occurred over the decade between 1999-2009. More alarmingly, it analyzed 2012 data too, and found that the toll was on the rise. Climate change was the likely culprit—it seems that warming is making heat waves more lethal.

The CDC report says that an "analysis of 2012 data indicates that deaths are on the rise. In a 2-week period in 2012, excessive heat exposure resulted in 32 deaths in four states, four times the typical average for those states for the same 2-week period from 1999-2009."

Last year, of course, saw exceptionally epic droughts and heat waves wrack the nation. The drought, which stretched on through 2013, at one point covered 80% of the contiguous United States. Heat waves suffocated the country through August. So it's unsurprising that year saw more deaths from heat exhaustion than usual—but it's also exemplary of what climatologists expect to see more of as global warming continues.

“You would not have these extremes without global warming,” Dr. James Hansen, then the head of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said last August. Researchers at the University of Michigan, meanwhile, found that heat levels will become an increasingly nasty problem for the Midwest thanks to climate change. 

Seeing as how we're now locked into a 400 ppm world, with more carbon concentrated into the atmosphere than at any point in the last 3 million years, we can expect the death toll from heat waves to continue to rise.