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South Florida is getting hotter. But planners say there's a data gap in finding solutions

 According to Florida's climatologist, temperatures in Florida have been steadily rising, with mostly above average temperatures occurring over the last six years. This winter is again forecast to be above average.
According to Florida's climatologist, temperatures in Florida have been steadily rising, with mostly above average temperatures occurring over the last six years. This winter is again forecast to be above average.

The United Nations conference on climate change in Glasgow is wrapping up this week. About 200 countries have been trying to hammer out a deal to curb carbon emissions and slow the planet’s warming.

If they fail, it won’t just be sea rise threatening South Florida. It’s also heat. By mid century, we could see 12 times as many days where it feels like 105 degrees outside.

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WLRN’s Andrea Perdomo talked to environmental reporter Jenny Staletovich about what’s being done locally to address the risk.

PERDOMO: Miami-Dade’s new chief heat officer Jane Gilbert has asked the National Weather Service Miami office to consider changing how heat advisories and warnings are issued. Right now advisories are issued when the heat index — or the feels like temperature — hits 105 degrees. What’s the status of that?

STALETOVICH: So a task force is being put together and the Service is considering the change, but they want more information. Rob Molleda, the warning coordinator at the Service’s Miami office, says they want to know when people are being hospitalized for heat injuries and then under what circumstances.

Right now there’s not good data. He says getting those details would make warnings more useful, because they don’t want the public to get so overloaded with warnings that they ignore them. Here’s what he told me:

"You don't want to set a threshold so low that that that almost every day in the summer, we're going to have a heat advisory. If you feel like, 'OK. So what?' You know, yeah, people are getting fatigued. It's kind of a fine line. You know, where we know where to draw that line is is tough, but that's where the data really, really helps us."

And we’ve heard that warmer nights are one of the things driving up temperatures. What else is happening?

Humidity is expected to go up because a warmer planet holds more moisture. When there’s higher humidity, sweating — the way we stay cool — doesn’t really work. Your sweat doesn’t dry and cool you. The other thing making it hotter in Florida is the warmer ocean waters. When the water is cooler, we get cooler sea breezes. When water is hotter, we don’t.

When it comes to climate change and the hazards it’s expected to produce, we hear a lot about flooding, wildfires, more intense hurricanes and even drought. But we don’t hear as much about the danger of extreme heat. Why is that?

Part of the problem is, again, the lack of data. Public health departments track heat-related injuries and deaths, but scientists say many deaths get overlooked. And there’s the whole issue of valuing damage.

Ladd Keith is an urban planner at the University of Arizona. He did a study that found 60 percent of the literature on heat and climate change had been published in just the last two years. Here’s what he said this month at workshop organized by the South Florida Regional Climate Compact:

"Heat does not damage the real estate sector in the same way that other physical climate risks do. So the real estate sector has property insurance and is very attuned to wildfire risk and flood risk because it literally can destroy the properties that they're investing in, right? So I think it makes it a harder case for local communities to regulate the private sector when the private sector doesn't have, like a kind of a foot in the game."

How does the threat in South Florida compare to other places?

So scientists say the hazards here aren’t actually as bad as other places. They say that’s because of something called climate variability. So in New York or Seattle or a place where summer highs are in the 80s and a heat wave suddenly spikes temperatures much higher, to over 95 degrees or 100 degrees, the variability makes people more vulnerable. They’re less prepared for heat. They may not have A/C. And most heat deaths happen inside.

So what’s next for South Florida?

So [the] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is now funding a study to come up with a scorecard so they can help determine how well certain measures deal with urban heating. Part of what makes that complex the is the same solutions don’t work everywhere. They’re very place-based. Not every building can, say, support a green roof. They also need to get a better handle on the impacts and the actual number of heat-related injuries and deaths.

Miami-Dade also plans to launch a heat season next year, to coincide with hurricane season. It won’t carry the same weight as hurricane season because far the National Weather Service hasn’t recognized it. But the county plans to use it as an opportunity to warn people about the looming danger and the potential hazards if we can’t manage to slow climate change.

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