Global temperatures ran hot lost year—even hotter than in 2014, which, when the calendar ran out at the end of December, cemented its status as the warmest year on record. But then came 2015, which shattered previous records by an enormous margin and may soon take up the mantle of hottest year in recorded history (Jan. 11 update: 2015 was named the second warmest year in the United States, behind only 2012). Moreover, nearly every month and period (first five months, summer, etc.) of 2015 set its own “hottest ever” record, marking one of the strangest—and most concerning—years the planet has seen concerning climate change and global health.
At face-value, the unusually balmy temperatures across the country may seem a welcome respite from the chill of winter. It also may be easy to attribute the unusual weather patterns solely to El Niño, a warming of the central and eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean that happens roughly every 2-7 years and lasts between six and 18 months. Certainly El Niño played a part in the overheated 2015 but the planet has been steadily warming and the year already predicted to topple 2014 temperatures long before the weather phenomenon rolled in to town. Therefore, the cause of 2015’s abnormal temperature raise and its implications for the future should not be taken lightly. There are a number of risks associated with rising global temperatures that will result in negative health repercussions should we choose not to prepare for the challenges to come.
A change in yearly temperature, even if only a few degrees over several years, has enormous impact on our environment. Ocean acidification, drought, and flooding are just some of the natural phenomena exacerbated by temperatures rising globally. In the past year the United States saw wildfires consume land from the Pacific Northwest to Texas; in the Missouri River basin, yearly drought and flooding cycles are becoming increasingly destructive to agriculture and cities downstream; and, California has been suffering a multi-year drought that has already begun to affect the health and welfare of the state’s residents. If left unchecked the rate at which these types of natural disasters affect communities will only continue to grow.
Many of the mentioned natural occurrences will continue to create public health emergencies across the country. Higher temperatures in northern regions will expand the range of infectious disease transmitting species such as mosquitos and ticks, and as a result, local health departments will likely see an increase in sub-tropical diseases like West Nile and Chikungunya in the coming years. Beyond infectious disease, water shortages similar to those seen in California will become increasingly common; this will hinder the economy in agricultural communities and threaten food availability nationwide. It is important that local health departments understand which environmental hazards will become more prominent in their jurisdictions in order to effectively plan for and mitigate the negative health effects that will arise. This includes providing education to community members on the consequences of climate change and the particular vulnerabilities to which their region is susceptible.
Though it may seem daunting to try to ready our communities for the effects of a warming climate, it is essential we do so and fast. Local health departments should be the vanguard of efforts to ready their jurisdiction and its residents for the challenges to come. By identifying local risk factors and vulnerable populations, a health department can better navigate emergency situations spurred by climate change. Perhaps one of the most useful methods to develop a situational analysis of impending climate change is by implementing the use of Geographic Information Systems (GIS). GIS enables users to incorporate virtually any type of geospatially related data into complex, multilayered visual representations to illustrate underlying trends. By integrating local public health data into known cartographic components of the jurisdiction it is possible to paint an informative picture for effective planning and preparation. Knowing their jurisdiction and its needs is the most powerful tool a local health department has to prepare for the effects of climate change.
With early estimates predicting 2016 to be even hotter, it is important to recognize the risks posed to our communities and apply the lessons learned this past year in order to mitigate the worst health effects that a changing climate will bring. So far, winter has brought blooming flowers, green grass, and Christmas Day temperatures soaring into the 60s, 70s, and even 80s in some places. Normal is anything but these days, and it is important to recognize the new needs of the planet and our communities.
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