UAA researchers are defining what ‘hot weather’ means in Alaska

by Chynna Lockett  |   

bright sun over alaskan flag

Alaska is prepared to handle harsh winter weather, but climate change has triggered a new threat – heat. Temperatures that are mild for many Lower 48 states can take a physical toll on the health of Alaskans whose bodies have acclimated to the environment they live in. A team of UAA researchers from the Institute for Circumpolar Health Studies (ICHS) are gathering data to develop the state’s first hot weather warning system based on how heat affects Alaskans. 

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is responsible for releasing hot weather warnings that notify individuals of potentially dangerous temperatures. The warnings are an essential part of public safety that help people prepare for upcoming heat-events. NOAA offers generalized guidelines for administering hot weather warnings based on temperatures that are inherently dangerous to the human body. However, factors like year-round weather conditions, surrounding landscapes, and humidity change how the same temperature affects populations in different areas. 

For more accurate alerts, NOAA relies on its regional offices to determine what temperatures pose a threat. Regional offices develop warning systems for releasing hot weather alerts using something called a temperature threshold – this is often selected based on temperature at which the local population starts experiencing health issues. Alaska does not have a local system in place because extreme heat is a new problem due to climate change.

bright sunlight in forested area

Associate Professor Micah Hahn with ICHS is partnering with NOAA’s Alaska branch to develop Alaska’s first hot weather warning system. Hahn’s first step was to find relevant hot temperature thresholds for the state. Her team collected records of summertime emergency room visits between 2015-2019 in Anchorage, Matanuska-Susitna Valley, and Fairbanks. They compared each day's weather to medical reports of illnesses potentially triggered by heat, including cardiorespiratory issues like asthma and heart attacks. “Then we ran statistical models to see at which temperature there’s a spike in emergency department visits,” Hahn said.

They found an increased risk for heat-related illnesses at a Heat Index as low as 70 degrees F. Temperatures in that range feel even more intense in early summer months when locals are still acclimated to frigid winter weather. Prolonged heat waves also add to the physical stress on the body. In 2019, Anchorage reached 90 degrees F for the first time ever and experienced a six-day heat wave with temperatures exceeding 80 degrees F. 

Hahn says it's important to know how to stay cool and prevent illness before extreme heat hits. “People tend to think about weather and climate hazards while they're happening, and then forget when they're not. Most of the year in Alaska, heat waves and hot temperatures are just not on anybody's radar. But now is the perfect time to plan for what to do if we start seeing high temperatures next summer.”

Hahn suggests thinking through potential hazards in advance and ensuring you have the necessary cooling equipment and supplies in storage in case they are needed. And in response to a common query, Hahn reminds us, “If it’s too hot for you, it’s probably too hot for your pets!” ICHS conducts research on a wide range of environmental challenges facing people and animals in communities across Alaska.