In the heat of it

recent heat wave could impact health

Climatology professor Harry McCaughey says he doesn’t think the heat wave will have a long-term impact, but that its just very uncomfortable for all.
Climatology professor Harry McCaughey says he doesn’t think the heat wave will have a long-term impact, but that its just very uncomfortable for all.

Staying cool in the summer heat can be challenging, particularly during a heat wave like the one just experienced in Kingston.

Helen Driver, a professor in Medicine and Psychology, said high temperatures can disrupt regular sleeping patterns and can negatively impact health.

“Lack of sleep causes irritability, lack of concentration, daytime sleepiness, and morning headaches,” she said.

Driver said since sleep is such a basic need, people will always find a way to sleep, so long-term sleep deprivation is not really a risk during a heat wave.

“People might end up falling asleep at inopportune moments,” she said. “Sleep is a basic need. Once people are sufficiently tired enough, they find a way to sleep.”

Driver said heat is only problematic in one phase of sleep but that disrupts the whole cycle nonetheless.

She said sleep is made of two phases, Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and non-Rapid Eye Movement (non-REM).

“A deep sleep phase is in the first hour when you’re sweating a lot. 70 to 90 minutes after that is the first REM sleep,” she said. “We can no longer regulate our body temperature properly. That’s when people would wake up. REM sleep is longer towards the earlier hours of the morning, so people wake more frequently.”

Driver said falling asleep can also be an issue during a heat wave.

“If people are uncomfortable then it is taking longer for them to fall asleep,” she said adding that there are ways to resolve this problem.

“Sleep in light clothes, in a sheet, or take a lukewarm shower before going to bed,” she said. “Use a fan to keep a cross breeze.”

Driver said contrary to popular belief, air conditioning can actually be problematic when it’s hot out.

“Not having AC is a good thing in helping us acclimate to the season,” she said. “The seasons change gradually. You need to have exposure to gradual temperature change.”

Driver said if people find they have air conditioned work places, homes, and cars then acclimatization is less important.

“If people are constantly in air conditioning, then there’s only an issue for short periods of time,” she said.

More and more people may start turning to air conditioning as 30 degree plus temperatures become the norm.

Climatology professor Harry McCaughey said that climate models worldwide have predicted that on a long-term basis, extreme weather will become more common.

“We can expect a warm world with extreme conditions,” he said, adding that climate change is a concern for everyone.

“It’s crucial because Queen’s students of today and their children will live through these climate changes,” he said. “These are things people have a visceral reaction to. They worry about their kids, what the environment would be like…there are just a whole slew of questions. Climate extremes can do some really bad things.” As for the latest heat wave, McCaughey said there wasn’t permanent damage done.

“I don’t think it had a long-term impact. It’s basically very uncomfortable for many people. It’s a tough environment to exist in. When temperatures are in the low thirties, it’s just miserable,” he said. “Everyone was just stressed including me and in fact Kingston was not as bad as a few kilometres inland.”

McCaughey said worldwide temperature increase is natural, but the rate of temperature increase is concerning.

“If we turned off every single source of extra carbon, the climate would still warm,” he said, adding that there is a threshold at which climate could become vastly different.

“It is possible the climate will become really, really different,” he said. “We are in effect in 2010 two thirds to that threshold and that is very worrisome.

Luckily, McCaughey said we may not have to see the thermometer go too much higher.

“The worst of the future climate changes are certainly preventable.”

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