A new "death map" compiled by researchers at the University of South Carolina shows that heat waves kill more Americans than any other type of natural disaster, despite the common perception that hurricanes and tornadoes are the most dangerous weather event.
Published in BioMed Central's International Journal of Health Geographics, the map dispels common misperceptions, and though the study doesn't deal explicitly with the threat of global warming, it is a reminder that the greatest danger of climate change comes not in the spread of disease or the possible strengthening of intense storms, but from the basic increase in temperature.
An August study found that heat waves will become more intense throughout the century due to global warming, and the U.S. Midwest is among the most vulnerable to dangerous heat. While the news reported about high temperatures and global warming typically focuses on the rising average temperatures, it's the temperature extremes that matter most. While the average temperature by 2100 might rise 5.4 degrees, the hottest of the hot days will be 14.4 degrees warmer.
According to the new research, the South is the most susceptible to all hazards, including floods and tornadoes, but the Great Plains is most threatened by heat and drought. In the mountain West, winter weather and flooding are the biggest killers.
Overall, heat and drought kills nearly 20% of all Americans who die because of a natural hazard, and another 19% die from severe summer weather. The next biggest killer is severe winter weather (18%).
Earthquakes, wildfires and hurricanes combined caused less than 5% of deaths.
Dozens died when a heat wave struck the U.S. in August 2007, tens of thousands died across Europe in 2003, and hundreds in Chicago alone in 1995.
Overall, according to the August study, 1,500 Americans die each year from excessive heat, whereas fewer than 200 die from all other natural disasters -- tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes and floods -- combined.
Heat waves also contribute to greater wildfire risk, and potential for prolonged and damaging droughts.
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