Potentially deadly heat wave is coming (again). How can we adapt our bodies and infrastructure?

Another heatwave is sweeping through California this week. Some regions could see record-breaking temperatures above 110 degrees. Death Valley could hit 130 degrees. 

KCRW talks about the impact of heat on the human body and how to reinforce community spaces to combat the high temperatures with Esther Margulies, a USC professor of landscape architecture and urbanism, and David Wallace-Wells, editor-at-large at New York Magazine, and author of “The Uninhabitable World: Life After Warming.” 

“We're seeing record temperatures multiple times a year and [in] multiple parts of the world. Even at those levels, that can be quite dangerous,” says Wallace-Wells. “There's a maximum level of heat and humidity that the body can tolerate. … Climate change promises more dramatic extremes and in the years and decades ahead.” 

He stresses that heat is the most lethal of all current climate impacts, and the persistent duration of hot environments is most damaging to the human body. 

Don’t boost A/C, invest in infrastructure design like shade canopies

Although the natural instinct might be to crank up the air conditioning during extreme heat, Marguiles says the units will only exacerbate the problem and contribute to rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions.

Instead, she says communities need to invest in the design and architecture of local infrastructure, as well as make clean drinking water more accessible to vulnerable populations. 

This so-called green architecture includes shade canopies, and Margulies says that just one high-quality canopy can provide at least 10 to 15 degrees of temperature reduction. 

“If I can just get under that big, mature tree with a dense canopy, I could be in a temperature that's more like 90 degrees. Maybe not cool, but definitely more comfortable,” she explains. “As we think about vulnerable populations, we have to think about how we can provide these cooling resources without contributing to more heat gain.”

Margulies points out that urban areas without pre-existing shade or other heat mitigation tools are among the communities who should be prioritized.  

“There's a goal ... to increase the shade canopy by 50% more than we have now. … We're promoting programs where we're using cool paving coatings, like more reflective colors, on roads, on parking areas, on playgrounds at schools,” she says. 

Gray water reclamation and public transit are also critical

“[We have to make] sure that we're increasing the amount of gray water that we're reclaiming and recycling, so that we can use those to keep our urban forests healthy and happy,” Margulies says. 

“And think about and increase our transit programs … to get people out of those cars that are actually causing greenhouse gas emissions,” she continues.