Watch CBS News

Scientists expect heat deaths will rise due to climate change, but naming heat waves could change that trajectory

MIAMI – Tuesday marks the first official day of summer, but millions in the Midwest and South are already baking under a heat dome.  And it follows a separate heat wave that scorched much of the country last week.

Portland, Oregon resident Jollene Brown died of extreme heat almost exactly one year ago. Her son, Shane Brown says he plans to be at her graveside next Tuesday.

"I'm going down to her grave and going to bring flowers and just kind of sit with her and talk."

Shane had brought his mother a swamp cooler prior to the heat wave, but it wasn't enough to cool her home as temperatures soared to 116 degrees. Jollene was one of hundreds who died in 2021's Pacific Northwest heat wave. Some called it a mass casualty event. Many were elderly, low-income or homeless.

He says, "if I had heard it was going to be dangerous than I would have taken it more seriously and been like okay, maybe I need to get her to my place."

Excessive heat causes more deaths in the U.S. than any other weather-related disasters, including hurricanes, floods and tornadoes combined. Scientists expect heat deaths will rise due to climate change.

Naming heat waves could change that trajectory, according to Kathy Baughman McLeod who studies climate change solutions for the think tank, the Atlantic Council. 

She says, "If something is the silent killer it needs a PR tactic and some branding, and we believe that if we give them a name people pay attention."

The proposal would also categorize the severity of heat waves on a scale from 1-3 using factors including the heat index, nighttime temperatures, and how fast temperatures have climbed over the last 30 days. The scale would vary from region to region. 

Baughman McLeod explains, "One jurisdiction like Bakersfield, California is going to have a much higher threshold because they're accustomed to hotter temperatures, than people in Minneapolis."

The system is launching for the first time Tuesday in Seville, Spain.  Four U.S. cities, Los Angeles, Kansas City, Minneapolis and Miami, are testing out the heat wave scale. And not a moment too soon. Forecasters expect July will bring more record-breaking heat.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.