In early May, a deadly wave of heat and humidity struck Pakistan and India. Dozens of people died because their bodies simply could not cool themselves fast enough given the region’s high humidity. This was true even for young, healthy people who are used to high heat.
“The human body has two primary mechanisms by which heat is dissipated: sweating and increased blood flow to the skin,” says Tony Wolf, a researcher at Penn State. “When we have hot temperatures combined with high humidity, these mechanisms of body temperature regulation start to break down.”
This is known as the wet-bulb phenomenon, and with temperatures increasing globally, it’s becoming a threat. The human body can withstand very high temperatures, but not when high humidity prevents sweat from dissipating in the heat. “This is what is happening when you notice sweat pooling or dripping from your skin—the air is not dry enough to evaporate all of the sweat you are producing,” Wolf says.
As the Earth gets warmer, there is concern that some places may become unsurvivable without help from climate control. If this sounds like a far-fetched threat when it comes to Kansas City, it might not be. Temperatures as low as eighty-six degrees Fahrenheit can be unsurvivable when paired with high humidity. Temperatures of ninety-five degrees with ninety-five percent humidity can kill.
Kansas City is getting hotter and wetter. Jessica Hafner, a meteorologist who has worked for stations across Missouri and is now at KMIZ in Columbia, says that this region was more than a degree warmer than normal in May and just over an inch above average on precipitation.
“The Kansas City area could increase five-and-a-half degrees by 2100 with our continued emissions, which could bring major impacts to agriculture and human behavior,” she says.
Then you factor in the corn sweat—in high heat, water evaporates from soil and plants, including corn. The technical term is “evapotranspiration,” and it impacts humidity in a big way, Hafner says.
Hafner’s station is doing its part by warning viewers about dangerous temperatures using a set of criteria that trigger Weather Alert Days. That then becomes the station’s main focus of news coverage.
Weather teams aren’t the only folks keeping Kansas Citians safe from extreme temperatures. Jaynell Assmann, founder of Care Beyond the Boulevard, which provides health care directly to those experiencing poverty and homelessness in the Kansas City area, explains how extreme temperature affects those with unstable living conditions. “The extreme weather is very difficult for people who are experiencing homelessness, whether it’s cold, whether it’s extreme heat. But what we notice with the extreme heat is that people really are more fatigued,” Assmann says.
In past summers, there have been designated cooling centers during specific times to help people experiencing extreme heat around Kansas City, ranging from YMCAs to public libraries. Assmann posits that more needs to be done. “Even though we live in the Midwest and this happens every single year, we need to start making a proactive plan,” she says. She’d like to see the city open an “extreme weather center” to provide safety during dangerous temperatures.
Heat takes both a physical and mental toll on folks who cannot get a reprieve from the stifling heat and humidity, Assmann says, which leads to other social problems too.
“There are a lot of short fuses, understandably, when you don’t have a place to cool off and no way to just give yourself a break from the heat,” she says. “It’s very frustrating, and the people that we take care of really struggle during these times.”