The State We're In

Extreme Heat: Have you gotten the message?

Jun 20, 2024

by Jay Watson, Co-Executive Director

People all over this state we’re in look forward to the early days of July. From sand sculpting contests at the shore to Independence Day fireworks high over the Hudson and Delaware, summer celebrations ramp up as June starts to position itself in the rearview.

But you could be forgiven for not being quite as enthusiastic about the arrival of high summer as you used to be. Recent research from the New Jersey Scientific Report on Climate Change and the Human Health and Communities Addendum shows that New Jersey is warming faster than the rest of the Northeast region and the world.

That is no small bit of bad news, given that heat is now the leading cause of weather-related fatalities in the U.S. “It’s important to pay attention to the forecast, to know what’s ahead in the near and somewhat more distant future,” New Jersey State Climatologist David Robinson said at the start of the season’s first heatwave. “This is a dangerous situation.”

Some of us are more vulnerable to the health effects of extreme heat — which include stroke and an increased risk of brain and heart problems — than others: older people, people with disabilities, outdoor workers. Your chances of being a victim also depend on how, and where, you live in New Jersey.

Low-income populations struggle with heat because of poor housing conditions, including lack of air conditioning and small or crowded living spaces. City residents are affected disproportionately because they often have limited access to green and open spaces.

Living and working in a city also means added exposure to the “urban heat island” effect more of us are getting to know. These islands are nobody’s idea of a tropical paradise: they happen because an urban area’s buildings, roads, and other infrastructure absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes, raising their temperatures relative to outlying areas.  Daytime temperatures in urban areas are one to seven degrees higher than temperatures in outlying areas; nighttime temperatures are two to five degrees higher, the Environmental Protection Agency says.

Trees can help. The shade of a full tree canopy can significantly reduce surface temperatures. Its leaves cool the surrounding air by releasing water vapor into the atmosphere through a process called evapotranspiration.

Earlier this year, New Jersey Conservation Foundation put together an “Urban Forest Partners” meeting between the national nonprofit American Forests and a dozen local organizations working to get more trees into Trenton, Newark, Camden, and Elizabeth. The group zeroed in on “tree equity” – the idea that trees are essential to public health and well-being, but not always distributed equitably among populations.

Getting more trees where trees are needed isn’t the only way we, as a state, are implementing methods to mitigate the heat. In April, the Murphy administration announced a new version of its Heat Hub NJ website meant to keep the public in the know about dangerous heat and how we can protect ourselves.

“It’s a really dynamic resource we’re continually adding new information to,” said Nathaly Agosto Filión, deputy chief climate resilience officer at the N. J. Department of Environmental Protection. The site is separate from and a complement to state emergency management updates and advisories. “We wanted to make sure we were getting the word out in a way that’s reaching as many people as possible, as quickly as possible. Because people underestimate their level of vulnerability.” For example, “let’s say you’re taking a psychotropic medication – that can affect your body’s ability to thermoregulate.”

Heat Hub NJ, rolled out as a prototype last year, includes a “heat vulnerability assessment” (sample questions: “Are you on prescription medications?” “Do you live alone, or are you socially isolated?”). And it offers an app, Chill Out NJ, that people can download to find nearby places to cool themselves. Type in an address, and an interactive map leads you to places providing heat relief within a three-mile radius, including public libraries.

Simply resigning to the fact that the scorchers of July and the rest of this season can be dangerous as the effects of climate change accelerate isn’t a great fit with the breezy mood of summer. “Heat waves are not cool,” Robinson, the climatologist, joked. “But we have a better idea of what is going on and what lies ahead than we used to, so we can be better prepared. We’re just more knowledgeable now.”

To find local weather information, including the humidity index, go to www.njweather.org.

To learn more about Tree Equity Score Mapping, go to www.treeequityscore.org.

To learn more about the N.J. Department of Environmental Protection’s Heat Hub NJ offerings, including Chill Out NJ, visit www.heat-hub-new-jersey-njdep.hub.arcgis.com.

And to learn more about preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org.

About the Authors

Alison Mitchell

Co-Executive Director

John S. Watson, Jr.

Co-Executive Director

Tom Gilbert

Co-Executive Director, 2022-2023

Michele S. Byers

Executive Director, 1999-2021

View their full bios here.

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