Effects of Heat Waves on People and Planet

Many people this summer have experienced firsthand the effects of heat waves. Some have dealt with blackouts caused by seemingly constant electricity usage, cases of heat exhaustion in record-breaking temperatures, and bewildering extreme weather patterns.

Other effects of summer heat are more far-reaching, yet equally felt: decreased agricultural output, and aging infrastructure, among others. In this section, we’ll be diving into both of these types of effects. 

Human Health

The human body is especially responsive to severe heat, and can cause conditions ranging from heat exhaustion to heat stroke.

Extreme heat is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States, and is only becoming deadlier each year - a tragic result of rising global temperatures. 
Source: NPR

But why is extreme heat so unsafe compared to other, seemingly more dangerous weather events, such as hurricanes and tornadoes? The answer is covered in our article on The Impact of Heat on Physical Health. Be sure to have a read!

Extreme Weather

The weather this summer has been, to say the least, tumultuous. Regions across the United States and Canada have experienced blistering heat, torrential flooding, and devastating wildfires—some even happening concurrently, within the span of days. Extreme heat contributes to the level of these extreme weather events, increasing the damage caused by them for both humans and the environment. 

Wildfires are one event worsened by heat, although one doesn’t necessarily cause the other.

The high temperatures that are associated with heat waves also produces dry conditions that prolong the burning of wildfires, along with their intensity. Dead leaves and branches become even drier, further escalating forest fires.

The smoke that is produced is felt far beyond the fire itself, as much of the Northeast and Midwest experienced from Canadian wildfire smoke that traveled down the Atlantic coast, as far as Alabama. As a result, poor air quality levels have engulfed these areas, putting almost 70 million people under conditions of decreased visibility amid a smoky haze.

Not to mention, the carbon emissions from this year’s Canadian wildfires exceeded those in any fires in the country of the past 20 years, contributing to additional warming. 

Smoke from Canadian wildfires in New York City on June 7th, 2023. Source: CNBC

Heat is also the progenitor of another increasingly common extreme weather condition: drought.

Droughts are defined as unusually dry weather over an extended period of time, occurring in almost every climate zone. Higher temperatures draw moisture from the ground through evaporation, causing soils to become drier and therefore unable to support vegetation. In areas with already low precipitation levels, heat waves pose a major risk of drought as surface water levels become scarce, potentially causing water shortages. The extensive drought in the western U.S., for example, was caused by not only low precipitation, but extreme heat as well

Both extreme heat and these types of extreme weather have one thread in common: climate change is behind their increasing frequency and severity. The result? Destroyed ecosystems, unhealthy conditions for humans, and an unpredictable future for our weather ahead. 


The global food supply is tremendously susceptible to extreme heat.

During excessively high temperatures, plant growth is inhibited, especially during the night when plants require cooler conditions to prevent stress.

Stunts in plant development lead to lower crop yields, shrinking the global food supply and potentially causing economic panics and food insecurity. Livestock, too, are not immune to the effects of heat. Animals under heat stress have been shown to produce less milk, grow slower, and have a reduced ability to conceive. Such effects decrease the amount of output produced by farmers, causing ripple effects within the global economy.

The effects of extreme heat on agriculture can be further exacerbated through droughts and wildfires that may arise, destroying land and raising the cost of now lesser-available produce. 

The prime example of heat’s effect on agricultural output is California.

Known for its Mediterranean climate of warm, dry summers and cold, wet winters, California is often touted as the perfect place to grow a variety of crops, including grapes, almonds, and more. However, the state has been facing an extended drought, resulting in both surface and groundwater shortages.

Several research papers, including this one, have reported that the height of California’s drought resulted in more than $1.9 billion lost in crop revenue, with total economic impact totaling in at more than $5.5 billion.

In a state that produces more than two-thirds of fruits and nuts grown in the United States, increasing frequency and severity of extreme heat is projected to have very real, concerning consequences. 

Electricity and Energy

If you, like millions of Americans, are under a heat wave advisory, your first move might be to turn on the air conditioning. However, the immediate satisfaction of cool air is not as simple as you think. 

Higher temperatures during the summer often increase the demand for electricity to cool homes and buildings. This often stresses power grids, as transmission lines are not able to adequately carry power to buildings in need. Governments are already reporting soaring usage of electricity by residents amid unprecedented summer heat.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) reported that Texas residents used a record-high amount of 81,406 megawatts of energy on a single day: July 13th, 2023. On a regular day, one megawatt powers about 1,000 homes, but during a heat wave, only 200 homes are sustained with a megawatt

Source: Bloomberg

An aging power grid, combined with excessive energy and electricity consumption due to extreme heat, can sometimes even lead to community wide outages as residents consume electricity to cool down their homes at the same time, overwhelming the power grid. Not only does this result in damages that can take weeks to repair, it creates dangerous conditions for the workers that need to restore power in unhealthy heat.

To prevent this from happening, utility companies are responsible for closely monitoring energy grid usage and take steps necessary to prevent power outages. One way they do this is through rolling blackouts, where companies shut down power in different areas at a time to prevent too many people from using electricity at the same time. However, this results in some residents not being able to stay cool, which can turn into a potentially life-threatening scenario. 

Many also warn that the current infrastructure in the United States is not ready to handle the surge in electricity usage that is expected to increase amid increasingly hotter summers.

Melissa Lott, research director of Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy, told Axios magazine that “[the United States] is designing our energy systems today for the past 50 years of weather and not the next 50 years of weather.”

As a result, unpreparedness of our infrastructure greatly increases the risk of communications blackouts, decreased to no access to air conditioning, and more. The risk of extreme heat is not just limited to technological infrastructure: roads, railroads, bridges, and cars are more likely to break down, disrupting the supply chain. Therefore, it is imperative that changes in infrastructure planning are deemed urgent so that they can prevent future power grid fiascos. 

Power grid failures impact many people, providing them few to no options for staying cool.

Fortunately, Eztia’s Arctic Patch is a great option to provide much needed relief during these times. A cooling wearable that relies on water instead of electricity, the Arctic Patch is a reliable, effective source to stay cool, even when existing infrastructure is not. Its ability to provide essential cooling to those in severe heat lowers the risk of heat stroke and related heat conditions, an especially important benefit as our summers are poised to become hotter and hotter. 

The Urban Island Heat Effect

City dwellers often experience the impact of a heat wave to a greater degree than their suburban or rural counterparts. The answer lies in a phenomenon called the urban island heat effect: urban areas often absorb more heat than surrounding areas because buildings and roads are much more highly concentrated compared to greenery and trees.

During the day, temperatures in urban areas are about 1–7°F higher than surrounding areas, remaining at about 2-5°F higher during the night. The urban heat island effect is only projected to grow as cities become more and more populated. 

Source: EPA

Looking Forward

So what does this mean for the future? 

Although the future of our infrastructure grid or agricultural impact is uncertain, one thing is certain: heat waves and related extreme heat events are likely to become more frequent, which means that their effects will too. A call of action for governments and companies to ensure that global communities and economies are prepared to deal with extreme heat is essential to protecting human and environmental health. However, large-scale action is not the only way to mitigate the effects of heat: individual decisions can make a difference that is just as important. 

What Can You Do About Extreme Heat?

Although it may seem that extreme heat, as a global issue, can only be solved on a global scale, individuals like you can still help mitigate heat severity. Here, we’ll outline some effective strategies that anyone can incorporate to protect ourselves from the effects of unhealthy amounts of heat. Individual lifestyle changes can still make an impact, no matter how small. 

Inside Your Home

As we’ve covered above, high amounts of household energy usage can strain power grids, potentially causing blackouts for the entire community. Individual households can decrease their energy consumption by adopting energy efficient strategies, such as turning off unnecessary lights and turning off ceiling fans when you leave the room.

Although fans are a popular device to cool people down, they don’t have the same cooling effect on rooms. Closing windows and shades on windows receiving the most sunlight can help cool down a home, reducing the energy being used by air conditioning.

In the long term, the simplest way to save energy might simply be monitoring your appliances and air conditioner usage. Embracing ways to stay cool without relying on the air conditioning as much can also save money while avoiding power grid failures. 

Outside Your Home

Cooling down our Earth can actually start with something very simple: trees!

Planting trees helps mitigate the effects of climate change as they absorb and store carbon dioxide from the air, decreasing the amount of heat that carbon dioxide emissions trap in the atmosphere. In addition, trees provide a source of shade that can sometimes be crucial for those working outside on hot days. Furthermore, trees are able to cool the air around them through a process called evapotranspiration.

A combination of evaporation and transpiration, evapotranspiration describes a plant’s intake of water from the soil and the subsequent outtake from its leaves in the form of water vapor.  The conversion of water from its liquid to gas form requires heat from the surroundings, therefore cooling the air. 

Severe heat, for now, is here to stay.  However, armed with the right knowledge concerning its causes and effects, we can work to prepare for and mitigate the effects of future summer heat waves, both as a world and as individuals. 

Share on :
black linkedIn iconblack facebook icon

Related Blogs