Climate change is making Vermont heat waves more common. Here's how to stay cool and safe
The National Weather Service issued a heat advisories this week as temperatures soared into the nineties in parts of Vermont.
Climate change is making heat waves like this one more common — and more dangerous. But there are things you can do to protect yourself.
A changing climate raises new public health concerns
Jared Ulmer leads Vermont Department of Health’s climate and health program. It monitors trends related to climate and public health and helps communities prepare and respond to them.
In recent decades, Ulmer says the Health Department has seen a gradual trend toward hotter daytime temperatures. But what’s more concerning from a public health perspective are the hotter overnight temperatures Vermont is seeing in the summer.
Vermont is also seeing a lot more very hot days.
“We did some analysis a few years back that showed that in Burlington, from, say, I think it was 1980 to 2010 or so, there were only about maybe seven days a year that reached 90 degrees [Fahrenheit] or warmer. And in the past decade or so, it's been closer to, you know, 15-plus a year,” Ulmer said. “So we're seeing those hottest days occurring more frequently."
There's some good news though: scientists agree cutting greenhouse gas emissions now can still make things better in the future. That said, the Health Department is already working on ways to help Vermonters adapt to a future that will be hotter.
Ulmer says the state is particularly focused on helping communities like those in the Northeast Kingdom — which aren't used to extremely hot weather — prepare.
He says they are operating this week under a heightened level of concern about heat stroke and heat exhaustion.
"Even just when the temperatures in Vermont get into the 80s, we see health impacts in our emergency medical service data,” Ulmer said. “So certainly getting up into the 90s, which we have this week and with the humidity that we're experiencing, which makes the temperatures people are feeling seem even hotter."
Check in on vulnerable community members
One way Vermonters can help make this heat wave safer is by checking in on neighbors or others in their social circles who may be particularly vulnerable to the impacts of extreme heat.
Ulmer says this is especially important when overnight temperatures stay above 80 degrees, like they did earlier this week.
A heat advisory is in effect for the Champlain and St. Lawrence Valleys from noon to 8 PM today where heat indices of 95-100 degrees F are expected. Elsewhere, heat indices of 85-95 are expected. Learn about heat safety at https://t.co/ald1F9jZMd. #NYwx #VTwx pic.twitter.com/b2ArS3fndP— NWS Burlington (@NWSBurlington) July 20, 2022
On days like that, he recommends checking in with older neighbors and friends.
“Those are folks that we really encourage people to reach out to on hot days, you know, just to ask a few questions, to make sure they're staying hydrated, make sure their house is staying at a reasonable temperature," Ulmer said.
Older people who live alone and don't have air conditioning are at highest risk, especially if it's hard for them to leave their home and cool down somewhere with AC. Offering someone a ride to a cooling center can help.
Find a community cooling center in your town.
Working outside? A few pointers to stay safe
If you work outside, there are some basic precautions you can take.
Vermont's Agency of Natural Resources recommends anyone working in the heat take frequent breaks, drink lots of water and stay out of the sun if possible.
Some Vermonters who worked through the heat this week say it's manageable.
Craig Lassiter is on Underhill's road crew. He was directing traffic along Stevensville Road Thursday, and said working in the heat was better than being cooped up inside.
"You're only out here for eight, ten hours, and then you can go relax," he said. "So as long as you stay hydrated, the heat's not a big deal."
That said, if you're working outside or don't have air conditioning, pay attention to early signs of heat exhaustion, like heavy sweating. If you feel muscle cramps, nausea or lightheadedness, the Health Department says it's time to drink water and get to a cooler place.
For livestock, the Agency of Agriculture says farms can use fans when animals are in the barn, give access to share or woods if they're outside grazing and provide plenty of water.
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Got a hot apartment? Here are some resources
As temperatures climb, Vermont Legal Aid says renters should know they have the right to a safe and healthy living space. That includes a window or door with working screens in every lived-in room.
However, attorney Maryellen Griffin says Vermont law doesn't require landlords keep rental units below a certain temperature. She says it’s one place where our statutes may not be prepared for the changes we’re seeing due to a warming climate.
"Even though we have really specific rules about heat, and how much heat the landlord has to ensure is available in the apartment, we don't have similarly detailed rules about air conditioning," Griffin said.
Still, she says that doesn't mean tenants have to live with dangerous heat. Griffin says good first step if you’re a renter and your space is too hot is to start a conversation with your landlord about safety improvements.
If you're concerned your apartment is dangerously hot right now, you can find the closest free, air-conditioned cooling center here.
"Even though we have really specific rules about heat, and how much heat the landlord has to ensure is available in the apartment, we don't have similarly detailed rules about air conditioning."Maryellen Griffin, Vermont Legal Aid
Under a warming planet, Burlington could see almost a month more of very hot days by the end of the century.
While some states require landlords to provide air conditioning to their tenants, Vermont does not.
But Griffin says tenants generally have a right to live in and use their homes, including putting in their own air conditioning units — but there are limits to that. She recommends working with your landlord to install a unit safely, and make sure it doesn’t cause wear and tear that you could be liable for.
And if you’re having a hard time paying your electric bill to keep your air conditioning on, Griffin says tenants who are medically vulnerable to heat can provide a doctor's note to their utility to avoid a shut-off.
Ulmer, with the Health Department, says closing windows and pulling blinds shut during the heat of the day will actually keep your house cooler. He recommends opening windows back up at night.
He says it’s hard to pinpoint a temperature that is “unsafe,” but that if you’re spending prolonged periods of time indoors in spaces that are above 80 degrees, it’s good to take breaks in a cooler space.