This story was updated on 7/22/19 at 4 p.m. EST.
New research published this week finds communities across the county, including in West Virginia, can expect weeks of dangerously hot days in the coming decades if action to reduce global heat-trapping pollution isn’t taken.
According to a peer-reviewed study published this week by researchers from the science advocacy group the Union of Concerned Scientists, by the end of the century, West Virginians can expect expect a much hotter future if actions to mitigate climate change aren’t implemented.
“This Union of Concerned Scientists report shows if we stay on our current global emissions path, extreme heat days are poised to rise steeply in frequency and severity in just the next few decades,” stated the group’s accompanying report. “This heat would cause large areas of the United States to become dangerously hot and would threaten the health, lives, and livelihoods of millions of people.”
The study, published Monday, July 15, in the journal Environmental Research Communications, used 18 climate models to project future heat indexes, a combination of temperature and relative humidity, also known as what temperatures “feel like.”
By 2100, the study estimates West Virginia would experience almost three months worth of days where temperatures hit above a heat index of 90 degrees Fahrenheit if climate intervention isn’t undertaken. Today, there are, on average, 13 days a year with a heat index above 90 degrees.
Historically in West Virginia, the heat index has hit above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, on average, one day per year. The study estimates by the year 2100, this could increase to 42 days.
By the end of the century, about 1.1 million people would be exposed to a heat index above 105 degrees Fahrenheit for the equivalent of a month or more each year.
Exposure to extreme heat can be dangerous or even fatal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nicolas Zegre, associate professor of forest hydrology at West Virginia University and director of the West Virginia University Mountain Hydrology Laboratory said the study's methodology was based on datasets he called "really robust." He said the research underscored the impact extreme and prolonged heat has on public health.
"Often we talk about impact of climate change on floods and drought events," Zegre said. "This is very much a public health issue. It’s directly impacting both quality of life and also public health and safety."
The study comes as much of the eastern United States is suffering through a heat wave. The National Weather Service in Charleston has issued an excessive heat warning that went into effect at noon on Friday and lasts through Saturday night.