As the global climate continues to warm, it is likely to lure people to their deaths, according to scientists from Imperial College London and Harvard.
After examining injury deaths in the contiguous United States for the period 1980 to 2017, they Monday reported in the journal Nature Medicine, the discovery that in warm weather more people die from drownings, transportation accidents, assaults and suicides.
“We found that a 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) anomalously warm year, as envisioned under the Paris Climate Agreement, would be associated with an estimated 1,601 (95 percent credible interval 1,430–1,776) additional injury deaths,” the study said.
The greatest number of additional deaths would come as the result of motor-vehicle related accidents, but the greatest proportional increase would be in drownings.
“…Deaths from drownings are estimated to increase more than those of other injury types—by as much as 13.7 percent for…men aged 15–24 years,” the study said.
The study authors, led by Robbie Parks from Imperial College, noted the link between warmer weather and increased drowning deaths has never been previously reported, but “is highly plausible because swimming is likely to be more common when the temperature is higher.”
With more people headed for the water in a warmer world, shark attacks could also be expected to increase, but the study’s authors did not gather data on those injuries and occasional death.
They did, however, explore the increase in what they termed “transport injuries” and said those go up for a number of observable reasons.
“First, driving performance deteriorates at higher temperatures,” they wrote. “Furthermore, alcohol consumption increases in warm temperatures, which also provides an explanation for why teenagers, who are more likely than other age groups to crash while intoxicated, could experience a larger proportional rise in deaths from transport, when temperatures are anomalously warm, than older adults. Last, warmer temperatures generally increase road traffic in North America; coupled with more people outdoors in warmer weather, this increase could lead to more fatal collisions.”
The scientists did not speculate on how many lives might be saved in the future by government programs to encourage people to park their cars and trucks and stay home when the weather warms.
But if they are right about the effects of climate change, such a stay-at-home program might save lives in a variety of ways.
“Pathways linking anomalously high temperatures and deaths from assault and suicide are less established,” the researchers wrote. “(But) one hypothesis is that more time spent outdoors in anomalously warmer temperatures leads to an increased number of face-to-face interactions, and hence arguments, confrontations and ultimately assaults. These effects could be compounded by the greater anger levels linked to higher temperatures. However, further research on the association of temperature and assault, and the factors mediating it, is needed.”
The scientists were harder pressed to explain an apparent temperature-related increase in suicides.
“…It has been hypothesized that a higher temperature is associated with higher levels of distress in younger people,” they wrote. “Nevertheless, the mechanisms for the links between temperature and mental health require further investigation, including whether the relationship varies by age and sex, as indicated by our results. Future research should also investigate the extent to which the increased risk of injury death as a result of anomalous temperature depends on community characteristics, such as poverty and deprivation, social connectivity and cohesion, quality of roads and housing, public transportation options, emergency response and social services.”
The news in the study wasn’t all bad. It indicated the increased warm-weather injury deaths, which tend to hit hardest at males from adolescence to middle age, would be partially offset by a drop in deaths related to slips and falls – “the number one cause of injuries and deaths from injury among older Americans,” according to the Centers for Disease Control.
Very old people would actually have an increased chance of avoiding accidental death in a warmer world.
“In those aged 85 years and older, there would be an estimated decline in injury deaths, because deaths from falls are expected to decline in a warmer year,” the climate study concluded.
Ice – a phase of water with which Alaskans are more familiar than most – appears to be something of a double-edged sword in those portions of the planet with four seasons. It decreases the number of young people drowning, but increases the number of old people dying in slips and falls.
Public health priority
The study authors say their model of future deaths is good down to the state level but would be better as the county or city level “because the impacts of anomalously warm and cold temperature on deaths from injuries may depend on socioeconomic (for example, poverty, social connectivity and cohesion, availability of guns), environmental (for example, availability of swimming pools, distance to bodies of water), infrastructure (for example, quality and safety of roads, public transportation options), and health and social services (for example, counseling and mental health services, emergency response).”
They suggested governments should now be considering ways to deal with global warming as a public-health issue going forward.
“Our work highlights how deaths from injuries are currently susceptible to temperature anomalies and could also be modified by rising temperatures resulting from climate change, unless countered by social infrastructure and health system interventions that mitigate these impacts,” the researchers wrote. “Although absolute impacts on mortality are modest, some groups, especially men who are young to middle-aged, experience larger impacts than other age and sex groups. Therefore, a combination of public health interventions that broadly target injuries in these groups – for example, targeted messaging for younger males on the risks of transport injury and drowning – and those that trigger in relation to forecast high-temperature periods – for example, additional targeted blood alcohol level checks – should be a public health priority.”
The Anchorage Metro Area is coming off its hottest summer in history. If it hots up again next summer, the study would suggest the appropriate message for regional residents, especially younger males, might be simple:
Stay in the house! Going outside in search of fun might kill you.