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Saturday, March 02, 2024
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Visitors gather around Memorial Union Terrace for various festivities this past Labor Day. Cooling fans and stations were provided on and off campus throughout the previous weekend due to high temperatures. 

Dane County braces for hotter summers due to climate change

Extreme heat events are expected to be hotter and more frequent, experts said, leaving city and county officials to mitigate potential danger to residents and infrastructure.

Dane County experienced near record-breaking heat this summer, and hotter temperatures are continuing into September.

Extreme heat events and poor air quality during the summer caused event cancellations and stress on energy grids as demand spiked for electricity to cool homes and businesses.

On Sunday, the University of Wisconsin Police Department reported 250 people received medical observation for heat-related issues at Camp Randall Stadium after temperatures soared into the low 90s during the Wisconsin Badgers’ first home football game of the season against the Buffalo Bulls.

The football game — the hottest ever played at Camp Randall, according to meteorologist Charlie Shortino  — follows a summer of excessive heat, drought and poor air quality from Canadian wildfire smoke, according to Dane County Executive Joe Parisi.

“While there have been periods of relief, this summer has been warmer and drier than normal,” Parisi said. 

City and county officials in response have been developing programs to mitigate the effects of the heat on residents and create initiatives to combat climate change. 

While rising temperatures in Madison and Dane County affect all residents, University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health professor Richard Keller raised pressing concerns for vulnerable groups of people during the heatwave. 

“The critical concerns are with the most vulnerable people: those who work outside, older people who are physiologically at risk due to their bodies’ decreased ability to regulate their own temperatures and high risk of dehydration, and those who take certain classes of drugs,” Keller said. 

Experts blame climate change for extreme heat

Dane County’s heat index reached a record-breaking 114 degrees in August 2023, according to the National Weather Service. 

The number of these extreme heat events is expected to increase by the middle of the century, according to city estimates. This heat poses a health risk to residents, including breathing problems, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Experts like Keller blame climate change for more frequent extreme heat events and a predicted overall rise in temperatures as well.

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“There has been intense heat in Wisconsin this summer, but focusing on record-breaking temperatures misses the point,” Keller said. “The most important thing to watch is general trends: are average temperatures increasing? Is air quality getting worse? How is that combination affecting vulnerable people?”

When evaluating the hazards of extreme heat, Morgan Finke, communications coordinator at Public Health Madison & Dane County said the public health department added climate change as a “contributing factor” to dangerous heat events.

County sets initiatives, provides resources for residents

Parisi created the Office of Energy and Climate Change to tackle the county’s response to climate change. 

“Dane County has taken many steps to address climate change,” Parisi said. “In fact, the county’s efforts are so extensive that they could be the subject of an entire series.”

Parisi has set multiple ambitious energy and emission initiatives for Dane County. These include switching all electricity in Dane County to renewable energy sources by 2025, turning facility, fleet and land operations carbon neutral by 2030 and increasing Dane County’s climate resilience. 

“All county facilities — not just those utilized during excessive heat conditions — receive appropriate and necessary maintenance, repairs and upgrades to ensure that they are prepared for any weather conditions,” Parisi said. “The county takes very seriously its responsibility to carry out its functions in a manner that is safe and comfortable for its employees and for those seeking services.”

Additionally, county and city officials are in the process of providing more resources to protect vulnerable communities from the heat, Parisi said, including the construction of a new overnight shelter for single homeless men. 

“The new, modern facility will have greater capacity and improved access to services and should provide an energy efficient and comfortable atmosphere regardless of weather conditions,” Parisi said.

In addition, the National Weather Service issues “various heat-related alerts to inform the public about dangerous heat conditions,” according to Finke. 

These alerts include excessive heat warning, heat advisory, excessive heat watches and excessive heat outlooks.

“As soon as we do get a warning, we begin working on providing public health education about the best ways to stay safe and healthy during the heat,” she said. “We communicate about these things through our website and social media.”

Finke told The Daily Cardinal extreme heat and air quality will receive increased focus and resources in future analyses.

To stay safe during extreme heat events, Keller encouraged residents to stay cool for a few hours per day to foster and protect the body’s natural resilience. 

“People also need to reach out to their vulnerable neighbors to make sure that they are staying safe.” Keller said. “Connect with older residents and those who might otherwise be at risk to make sure they are doing what they can to stay cool and drink plenty of water.” 

Cooling centers are available to residents who need a safe place to reside during extreme heat. Locations include public places like churches, community centers and libraries. 

Parisi assured Madison and Dane County residents that the city is taking climate change seriously. 

“We are doing our part to become carbon neutral, promote and develop renewable energy and to improve the efficiency of our buildings,” Parisi said. “Not only that, we are doing our part to help others do the same.”

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