Health and Medicine People and Community

Geography, economic level affect adaptation to extreme heat

Doctoral student Lynée Turek-Hankins is the lead author of a study that examines how different regions around the world respond and adapt to a warming climate.
heat wave

A child splashes water on her face from a fountain in Rome on Aug. 11 to try and cool off during an ongoing heatwave. Photo: The Associated Press

The thermometer inside the small San Francisco Bay area apartment read 96 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Lynée Turek-Hankins was only a temporary tenant, but she had to do something to seek relief from the intense heat. So, for an hour or two each day, she visited a local park, finding relief underneath a tree canopy. 

With the planet now perilously close to the threshold mark of 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, people, communities, and governments are undoubtedly responding to extreme heat events in their own ways, employing both low- and high-tech methods. 

Lynée Turek-Hankins
Lynée Turek-Hankins

To what extent those adaptations occur, however, is largely unknown, according to Turek-Hankins, a doctoral student in the University of Miami’s Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy. 

Now, she and a team of more than a dozen researchers have taken a major step to learn just how much they are occurring. In a new study, Climate change adaptation to extreme heat: a global systematic review of implemented action, they investigate where, why, and how adaptation to extreme heat is unfolding globally. 

It is published in the inaugural issue of the journal Oxford Open Climate Change. 

“This is a particularly impactful time for our research, given the recent heatwaves in the West and the burgeoning emphasis on heat in Miami,” said Turek-Hankins.

Analyzing 301 peer-reviewed articles spanning 98 countries, she and her team documented countries and regions in which implemented extreme heat adaptation has occurred, then studied the diverse heat impacts to which people are responding, the types of adaptations implemented, and the actors involved. “We document how local or indigenous knowledge and involvement are incorporated into those heat adaptations, and through our analysis, we assess the global status of implemented extreme heat adaptations,” explained Turek-Hankins, the lead investigator of the study. 

She and her team combined data from the Global Adaptation Mapping Initiative with a heat-specific systematic review to analyze the global extent and diversity of actions employed to adapt to extreme heat. What they discovered is that these adaptations differ by geographic region and economic level.

“In low- and middle-income, developing countries, implemented heat adaptations focus on the agricultural, livelihood and economic impacts of heat, especially in combination with drought,” Turek-Hankins pointed out. “By contrast, in high-income, developed countries, heat adaptation overwhelmingly focuses on health impacts.” 

The researchers documented some of the ways individuals and different countries respond to heat. These included farmers in Nigeria transitioning to non-farming activities when intense heat made it nearly impossible to do farm work. Organizations in the U.S. opened cooling centers and helped residents to relocate during power outages, as well as conducted outreach and education on the dangers of extreme heat. Fishermen in Bangladesh dug deep ponds inside shrimp fields so that shrimp could take refuge from heat stress during the summer. 

Surprisingly, they found that most adaptations to heat are implemented autonomously by individuals and communities, which suggests that strategies to date have been incremental coping responses. “Our results imply that fundamental transformation would be needed to manage heat under high-magnitude climate change, for which hazards may both exceed human survivability thresholds in some locations and exacerbate the existing injustices of who bears the health, well-being, and security burdens of extreme heat,” Turek-Hankins said. 

As a doctoral student, she studies how infrastructure and policy promote resilience and equity under a changing climate. Her research interests include such areas as adapting the built environment and housing to the triple threat of extreme heat, urbanization, and population growth. The research also focuses on preparation for, and understanding of, cascading risks and sociotechnical systems. Exploring policies that promote energy and climate justice is also part of her studies. 

Turek-Hankins, who is mentored by Katharine Mach, associate professor at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, also is investigating federal policies aimed at adapting people’s homes to withstand the effects of climate change. 

“The home is the first line of defense for most people when it comes to responding to climate change,” she said. “When there’s a heat wave, you stay inside your air-conditioned house. When there’s a hurricane, you shelter in place. The home is such an important aspect of our protection from the elements, and that’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. And, so, preparing people for climate change is making sure their homes are ready for climate change.”