EADI Conference 2023 | From sunbathing to sunstroke: How should we personally respond to the risks of (severe) heat and heatwaves?

This summer, several weather records have been smashed, with the hottest week ever recorded occurring last week. The heat is becoming a serious problem; some may argue that climate change is on our doorstep and no longer an unimaginable future. But while heatwaves are particularly dangerous, leading to a loss of lives and health risks, above-average temperatures are also risky, even when a heatwave hasn’t been declared officially. In this article, ISS PhD researcher Lize Swartz asks whether we should also be taking action when there are no heatwaves and what role we can play in protecting ourselves—and those around us—from the heat.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

We watched as a young woman upend a jug of iced water over her head. “That’s the absolute worst thing you can do when you show signs of heat stroke,” my friend commented. It was a hot day, the temperatures reaching 32°C, and we were sitting at a beach restaurant. We’d been on the beach for a few hours but as it became progressively hotter, we decided to take a break, sitting in the shade at the restaurant until the sun would lose its sting. The woman had turned pale shortly before, moving to the shade after sitting in the full sun. She had been in the sun for too long and showed signs of heat exhaustion.

All around us, we saw people lying or sitting in the full sun–on towels, on lounge chairs restaurants rented out, at the restaurants themselves. Irresponsible, I was telling myself, but these days not only because of the risk of getting skin cancer from enduring exposure to the sun. It was irresponsible because it was hot and because staying in the sun all day causes the body to heat up and not cool down unless measures are taken. Particularly in that kind of heat. You know, the one that’s not pleasant and that there seems to be no relief from. And it seemed that people were not taking these measures, staying in the sun until they were already starting to feel sick, relishing the heat, like lizards, without realizing that they were being scorched.

That got me thinking about whether the risks associated with heat and heatwaves are adequately understood. Granted, it wasn’t that hot, 32°C being a bit hotter than usual, but not the blistering 38°C we’d had in July last year when a heatwave swept across the country. Still, the body’s ability to cool itself down given the type of heat that we were exposed to that day was already reduced. I could feel myself struggling, with the sweat pooling up all over my body instead of evaporating. It wasn’t enjoyable. I needed to drink liters of water to rehydrate, and ultimately, only a lukewarm shower provided relief.

This heat, accompanied by humidity, is the worst type. It doesn’t cool down at night; the air remains hot and sticky. Houses stay warm. We wake up the next day and it would be a continuation of the previous day’s heat. Our bodies don’t regulate our temperatures as well, though they try to. There are only a few things we can do: stay in the shade, stay inside, cool ourselves down with water. Yet the people on the beach weren’t doing that, oblivious to the heat.

Local and national authorities have a mammoth task of creating awareness about the risks of heatwaves and heat in general, for example by issuing a heat warning in advance. A question that arises is when they should start taking action: When there’s an official heatwave? When it’s above 35°C? Clearly, longer exposure to the sun, even at 32°C, can make people ill. Should the government be circulating information on heat-related risks even when it’s a normal summer’s day when there’s a risk of the body not being able to cool itself due to the level of humidity and the lack of the circulation of air? Or should we have enough common sense to be doing it ourselves?

I think that when leaving ourselves to be the judge, we can make poor decisions based on a lack of relevant information to make an informed choice, or out of wilful ignorance. There are tons of people who don’t heed the warning to seek shelter when it’s hot, who still engage in normal activities without realizing that their bodies are overheating. Could it also be a matter of not being able to discern that our bodies are getting too hot? Do we need more education about that, so that we know that when we perspire heavily and remain sticky, it’s a sign that we need to cool ourselves down?

In a year that’s already marked the two hottest days on earth, ever (!), these questions are becoming urgent. The underlying question is, of course, who is responsible for ensuring that we are protected from the heat: the government, or us? It’s a combination, I believe–where we cannot do it ourselves, or do not do it, it should be taking steps to protect those who cannot or will not do it themselves. Through heat plans or awareness campaigns. And by ensuring that vulnerable groups have the necessary means to shade and cool themselves.

But it is also clear that we need to take action individually, and the first step could be to take responsibility for our own bodies—to self-govern our bodies in times of heat by understanding the risks of heat and how it can affect us, and by acting cautiously, especially if we don’t know how our bodies react to the heat. I don’t know how we can start doing this, but reading more about the risks of hot temperatures can be a start.

A second, related step could be to help each other understand the risks of exposure to heat by creating opportunities for social learning and acting on what we’ve learned, including helping each other understand or access information on the effects of heat. And we can act to assist those requiring help. In the U.S., for example, cooling centers are organized by the U.S. government and cooling stations by individuals or organizations acting together for others in their community who suffer from the heat and who don’t have the means to adequately cool themselves.

This remains a big issue among people who live in dwellings inadequately designed to remain cool or who don’t have the financial means to cool themselves, such as through a sun screen or aircon. Often, these are also more vulnerable segments of the population, in particular the sick, disabled, and/or elderly.

The inspiration for my post is the seed panel on urban resilience to heatwaves that THUAS and ISS researcher Sylvia Bergh and I are organizing at this year’s EADI Conference. We’ll be looking at citizen, government, and private sector responses to heatwaves, and I’ll probably want to discuss individual responses.

The panel takes place on Thursday July 13, 2023 at 10:00 CET. Topics range from integrated heat planning in the Netherlands to measuring the accessibility of cooling stations and urban heat hazard exposure in Kampala, Uganda. If you’re a registered conference participant, you can join in person or online. If you haven’t registered, we’re writing up the key takeaways and observations after the conference. Stay tuned!

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the author:


Lize Swartz is a PhD researcher studying how changes in urban water availability affect human-water relations. She has co-authored a book called Bron on how residents of Cape Town navigated the near-collapse of the city’s water system. She has been editor of Bliss since 2017.

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