Heat-related deaths in Clark County have significantly increased over the last few years, in large part due to the rise in extreme heat, according to a new study.
Research by faculty and undergraduate students at the Desert Research Institute (DRI), Nevada State College, and Universidad de Las Americas Puebla identifies a clear correlation between more frequent extreme heat waves and higher heat-related deaths in Las Vegas over the last ten years.
The study was published in April in the International Journal of Environmental Science and Technology.
“Current climate change projections show an increased likelihood of extreme temperature events in the Las Vegas area over the next several years,” explained Erick Bandala, an assistant research professor at DRI and lead author on the study. “Understanding recent extreme heat trends and their relationship to health hazards is essential to protecting vulnerable populations from risk in the future.”
Las Vegas showed significant increases in annual severe heat events, from an average of 3.3 events per year from 2007-2009 to 4.7 per year in the 2010-2016 period. The findings match recent historic trends, which show a steady increase in severity and frequency of excess heat waves in Las Vegas since 1980. And as heat wave intensity increases, the number of heat-related deaths are, too.
“From 2007 to 2016, there have been 437 heat-related deaths in Las Vegas, with the greatest number of those deaths occurring in 2016,” explained Bandala. “Interestingly, 2016 also shows one of the highest heat index measures over the last 35 years. This shows a clear relationship between increasingly intense heat events in our area and public health effects.”
Hot-weather cities are especially vulnerable to increasing temperatures due to the abundance of heat-absorbing materials like asphalt exacerbating already high temperatures (called the urban heat island effect), particularly at night.
Populations most at risk of heat-related deaths, according to the study, were adults over 50 years old with preexisting conditions of heart disease followed by young adults (20–50 years old), whose deaths were usually associated with drug or alcohol abuse.
Extreme heat hits homeless and elderly Nevadan’s the hardest. According to the Southern Nevada Homeless Census, 25,000 people were homeless in Clark County in 2017 but only three day shelters that hold less than 500 people altogether operate in Nevada for those seeking shelter from the heat. Seniors living on a fixed income often have trouble repairing air conditioners and making utility payments.
With more older adults choosing Clark County as a retirement destination, researchers noted the significance of those findings.
“This research helps us better understand the connection between the climate changes we’ve experienced in Las Vegas and their impact to public health over the last 35 years,” Bandala said. “Ideally, this data analysis will help our community adapt to the changes yet to come.”
Using data obtained from the National Centers for Environmental Information of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for the Las Vegas McCarran International Airport station, scientists measured surface temperature to analyze extreme heat for the study.
The number and characteristics of deaths from heat because of weather conditions used in the study were obtained from the Clark County Coroner and Medical Examiners Office.
The data provided include the case number, date of death, decedent age, cause of death, and decedent residence state. Only deaths occurring in June, July, or August were selected for the study because, historically, those are the months with the highest temperature throughout the year.