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Report: Severe Heat Waves Will Likely Threaten Iowa Residents, Workers, Farmers

Kate Payne/IPR
According to a new climate analysis, Iowa is slated to see extreme heat waves that will threaten residents, workers and livestock in the state, and undermine key industries.

Severe heat waves due to climate change are expected to pose an increasing threat to Iowa workers and residents. According to this year’s Iowa Climate Statement, a recent analysis released Wednesday, the state is slated to see dangerously hot weather in the coming decades.

According to a coalition of more than 200 Iowa scientists, the state is going to get much hotter.

The signatories on the Iowa Climate Statement expect the number of days above 90 degrees to nearly triple by mid-century, from about 23 to about 67. In the same timeframe, average temperatures on the hottest days of the year are expected to increase 6 degrees Fahrenheit, from about 92 degrees to about 98 degrees.

The projections are sobering for University of Iowa civil and environmental engineer Jerry Schnoor. He says drastic action is needed over the next decade to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions, and ultimately reduce net emissions.

“Climate change is already here and it’s going to get much worse,” Schnoor said. “In order to get new infrastructure in place and even begin to respond technologically we have to make those investments and decisions now.”

"I would say we are on the road to leaving an uninhabitable planet for our children. It's like we see things moving in slow motion and we think we'll always have time to act. But we don't anymore." - Jerry Schnoor, University of Iowa

Iowans who work outside, like agriculture and construction workers will be especially at risk to extreme heat, as will elderly Iowans, and the state’s many residents who lack adequate air conditioning in their homes.

While public funding and support is available for Iowans who struggle to pay their heating costs in the coldest months of the year, there are no comparable resources currently available to help residents keep their homes cool during the hottest days of the summer. But more public health experts are recognizing that may be a growing need, says occupational and environmental health expert Peter Thorne of the University of Iowa.

“Maybe it’s going to a place where the summer heat is as much of a risk factor or more so than the winter cold,” Thorne said. “It’s definitely something we need to be thinking about.”

Thorne says extreme heat is a serious health concern, pointing to oppressive heat waves that blasted Europe this summer. Scorching heat waves in past years have killed hundreds of people in Chicago, thousands in France, and thousands more in India.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heat is the leading cause of weather-related deaths in the United States.

“We see the writing on the wall and we want to prevent that because these cataclysmic events aren’t just uncomfortable, they’re lethal,” Thorne said. “And they’re preventable, we believe, and so we’re trying to sound the alarm now.”

The state’s booming livestock industry is expected to suffer too, killing animals and cutting production. Currently, Iowa has some 23 million hogs, 4 million cows and 79 million poultry.

Severe heat waves will likely force producers to change the ways they confine their livestock, scientists warn, increasing the need for added ventilation and air conditioning to the lots and buildings that often hold hundreds or thousands of animals.

Under extreme heat scenarios, livestock animals are predicted to be more susceptible to illness and disease, including vector-borne diseases carried by pests that spread in warmer temperatures. It will likely also be harder for the animals to gain weight in the heat, further impacting their health and ultimately increasing the cost of production.

"We see the writing on the wall and we want to prevent that because these cataclysmic events aren't just uncomfortable, they're lethal." - Peter Thorne, University of Iowa

The scientists behind the 2019 Iowa Climate Statement are encouraging Iowa residents and elected officials to consider how the rising temperatures may affect their lives and livelihoods as well as public health, the economy and public policy.

Schnoor is urging Iowans and policymakers at all levels of government to continue to build on Iowa’s wind production and drastically expand the state’s fledgling solar industry, as well as invest in carbon sequestration and massive reforestation, including on Iowa farms.

Driving more fuel efficient vehicles (as well as simply driving and flying less), in addition to living in smaller, more energy efficient homes are other key ways to limit greenhouse gas emissions at the household level.

An international coalition of scientists has warned the world must drastically cut global emissions over the next decade or so in order to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and sidestep the worst impacts of climate change.

Without significant societal changes, Schnoor says future generations will inherit an unrecognizable and hostile world.

“I would say we are on the road to leaving an uninhabitable planet for our children,” Schnoor said. “It’s like we see things moving in slow motion and we think we’ll always have time to act. But we don’t anymore.”

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter