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As nighttime temperatures increase in Kansas City, so do heat injuries and electric bills

Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3

A heat advisory is in effect in Kansas City until Thursday night, with heat values up to 108 degrees. Temperatures are staying high at night, which means it's harder to cool off when the sun goes down.

Kansas City is, once again, experiencing a heat wave — with temperatures climbing to dangerous levels all week.

The National Weather Service issued a heat advisory for the area on Tuesday, with heat indexes up to 108 degrees, effective until 11 p.m. on Thursday.

What’s worse, according to Andrew Pershing, director of climate for nonprofit research group Climate Central, is that Kansas City is also experiencing unusually warm nighttime conditions, meaning there’s no natural break from high temperatures. Pershing said forecasted lows in the Kansas City area on Tuesday were about 10 degrees higher than historical averages.

Increased risk of heat injury — especially for vulnerable residents

Pershing said exposure to extreme heat without a break at night is especially dangerous for people with underlying health conditions.

“You know, if people don't have a chance to cool down overnight, it can really amplify things like heart disease or, you know, lung disease or asthma, and people who are very old or very young are at especially high risk,” he said.

Already, health officials are warning of a rise in related illnesses.

University Health has reported multiple cases of heat exhaustion and one case of heat stroke since Sunday. Dr. Ryan Gallagher, emergency medicine physician at St. Luke’s Health System, says the effects of heat and humidity can sneak up even on healthy people.

“The reality is none of us are fully acclimated to be able to tolerate the kind of heat that we’re seeing now,” Gallagher says.

During the summer months, nighttime is typically a time to cool down and recharge. When that doesn’t happen naturally, people rely on air conditioning to cool down at night, running up their electricity bill. Pershing says across the country, people are dependent on air conditioning more days of the year.

But while air conditioning is important in areas of high heat, Pershing points out that it’s something only available to people who can afford it. While Kansas City offers air conditioning at cooling centers during the day, there are fewer resources at night. That makes high nighttime temperatures especially dangerous for those who cannot afford air conditioning or are experiencing homelessness.

Pershing suggests people check on elderly or more vulnerable neighbors for signs of heat stroke, heat exhaustion or heat cramps. Warning signs include high body temperatures, red, hot and dry skin, throbbing headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion and unconsciousness.

Various studies have also linked high temperatures to increased violence in cities. Research from Ohio State University, for example, suggests hot temperatures make people uncomfortable and irritated.

Other studieshave concluded people are outdoors and interacting more often, leading to more conflict.

Are hotter nights evidence of climate change?

One of Climate Central’s goals is determining a connection between weather events and climate change.

Pershing says while daily high temperatures tend to vary more dramatically, nighttime temperatures are generally more stable, which gives scientists a better idea of whether temperatures are rising in the long term.

“We see changes of one or two degrees on average in the nighttime temperatures, but because nighttime temperatures don't vary much from day to day, the way that high temperatures do, that actually gives us a really strong signal of climate change,” he says.

Pershing says even though Kansas City hasn’t seen dramatic increases in daytime highs, the unusually high nighttime temperatures indicate climate change is happening.

“What we're seeing is that in so many places throughout the country, we have very strong warming at night and a really narrow temperature range. And that allows us to say that much of the temperatures that people are experiencing at night, especially these unusually warm nights, have a very strong fingerprint of climate change,” he says.

Kansas City is experiencing climate change through increased temperatures, periods of drought and more frequent flooding, according to theKansas City Office of Environmental Quality.

Some of these changes can also be attributed to the heat island effect, where areas with more infrastructure absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes such as forests and water bodies.

Pershing says many cities are trying to combat these effects through urban planning.

“Trees and parks are a great way to help cool a city," he says. "Places are experimenting with the color of roads, with the color of roofs to try to reflect more of that heat back into space.”

Rachel Schnelle is an intern for KCUR 89.3. She is an alum of the Missouri School of Journalism.
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