Heat waves aren’t named like natural disasters and often fail to garner the vigilant attention and planning that people, plants, and animals require to survive.

Yet, the frequency, intensity, and devastating impacts of extreme heat is on the rise, according to the World Meteorological Organization.

Here are answers to some of the most frequently-asked-questions about heat waves, along with a few short and long-term solutions that forward-looking communities are enacting to combat extreme temperatures and offer relief in a warming world.

What is a heat wave?
A heat wave is a period of abnormally hot temperatures that falls outside an area’s typical range. Extreme heat must last at least two days or more to qualify as a heat wave.

Are heat waves becoming more common?
Yes. Heat waves are becoming more intense and frequent. 2023 was the hottest year ever recorded, partially due to the cyclical climate pattern El Niño that happens every 6-7 years, which studies now show are being made more frequent and extreme by global heating.

In July 2023, large areas of Mexico, Southern Europe, China, and the US broke many local high-temperature records. In the United States, heat waves are rising dramatically, from an average of two per year during the 1960s to six per year between the 2010s and 2020s.

How do heat waves affect health?
Extreme heat is deadlier than floods, hurricanes, and lightning combined. High temperatures create a cascade of problems for the human body to navigate, including the loss of our ability to control our temperature and enter dangerous heat strokes that can cause permanent disability or death, especially among the elderly, children, outside laborers, and other high-risk populations.

Heat waves worsen cardiovascular and respiratory issues and can even cause kidney damage and symptoms of impaired cognition like reduced concentration, slower reaction times, and memory impairment.

Each year, around 12,000 people die due to heat waves. The World Health Organization estimates that, by 2050, more than 255,000 people could be killed annually from extreme heat waves. Despite already high numbers of deaths, experts predict we are likely undercounting heat-related deaths by six times.

How do heat waves impact the environment?
Heat waves have far-reaching impacts on the environment, straining ecosystem health, natural resources, and biodiversity. Heat waves also amplify the impact of drought, increase wildfire likelihood and hazardous smoke, and cause water insecurity, power shortages, and crop losses. The effects of heat waves on non-crop plants are under-studied but appear to be particularly lethal when coupled with extensive droughts.

Read the full article about heat waves by Sami Adler at GlobalGiving.